As a child, I was fascinated with death. I thought I was alone: Melissa & Doug co-creator

There’s no question we’re in the midst of dark times that have taken their emotional toll on adults and children alike. But no matter how understandable it is that kids might be brooding about the forces of dark and light in this world, it has always given parents pause when their children seem to have creepy or morbid preoccupations.

Maybe it’s manifested by a somber-colored wardrobe, or watching horror movies. Maybe it’s colorful drawings that depict death and destruction, or even just an affinity with Lord Voldemort instead of Harry or Hermione.

And parents do have every reason to worry. While data on the past year and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and quarantining on children and adolescents is still being compiled, early studies show the potential emotional toll.

In a study on the psychological effects of quarantine on youths in Italy and Spain, 85.7% of the parents reported changes in their children’s emotional state and behavior during quarantining; these observations included difficulty concentrating (76.6%), nervousness (38%), loneliness (31.3%), uneasiness (30.4%), and worries (30.1%). And the New York Times revealed a disturbing spate of student suicides in Clark County, Nevada, over just nine months since the schools closed in March 2020 — at 18, double the amount that had been recorded in the area over the previous year. 

Don’t worry, be gloomy

When children seem to be consumed with a fascination for the morbid, an adult’s first instinct may be to guide them in the direction of sunnier pursuits — clothes that are brighter, books that are lighter, and hobbies that seem age-appropriate and reassuring to everyone (especially yourself) that the child is totally OK. Most of all, you might be tempted to steer clear of difficult conversations that have anything to do with topics like mortality or existentialism. But there are a lot of reasons why allowing — and openly discussing — spooky childhood interests may be essential for your child to grow into a fulfilled adult. 

 (Photo: Getty Images)

I grew up hiding tremendous despair from the grown-ups and peers around me from a very early age. As young as 5 years old, I wrote verse questioning whether life was worth living; I grew up having deep existential depression without understanding what that was. And yet, in my adult life, I founded the toy company Melissa & Doug (with my husband of over 30 years, Doug); we live with our six children in a household that, although we face challenges like other families, is a happy one.

While I don’t believe I could have achieved stability and success without being the sensitive child I was, openness and validation from the adults around me might have gone a long way in helping me to accept and love myself sooner. 

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Your child may not give you outward signs of inner turmoil, but no one is too young to experience it. I was an expert at hiding my true thoughts and feelings. I wasn’t writing my morbid, despairing verse for attention; in fact, I never shared my writing with a single other person. At 5 years old, I had already gotten the message that the grown-ups wanted a happy face, so a happy face was what they would get.

Your child is not alone

But it wasn’t how I was feeling inside. To feel that the true me would be received poorly, to know it was unwelcome, that I might “need help,” made me feel hopelessly imperfect. I believed my thoughts were unique to me, and unacceptable. I can’t imagine the relief I would have felt knowing how many others — around me, and throughout history — had wrestled with the same kind of existential anguish. 

One reason parents instinctively look to guide their kids away from the darker aspects of life is because of the fear that it warns of something bigger — maybe even destructive behavior to come. Certainly, parents should raise their kids in accordance with their values; allowing your child to express anxious and depressed feelings is not the same as arranging for an all-ages, family binge watch of the latest Netflix true crime docu-series.

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And keep in mind the double standard that exists in our culture, in which violence-laden television shows and movie are embraced. Kids may be confused by the fact that so many mediums are saturated with violence (and the message that it’s all right for adults to enjoy them) but that writing poetry about death is taboo and marks them as “different.” It’s normal to be fascinated with mortality as we attempt to understand it; the pet hamster who will never come back, the grandparent who is suddenly gone. But I didn’t know it was normal. I only wanted to be like everybody else, to be okay, to be at home in the world. And I didn’t think it would ever happen. 

Self-expression shares the joy

To embrace your child’s proclivities, to allow them to express their fears and ruminations, their anger and their sadness, doesn’t perpetuate the darkness. Instead, it shows that we can all choose to channel that darkness into light by creating, talking, reading, writing. Creating had always been a respite to me, but I kept my work hidden. Over time, however, I began to wonder what it would be like to share it, and that led to one of the most profound moments of my life and, finally, self-acceptance.

After years of writing and crafting and creating in secret, I made the first toys for what would become Melissa & Doug. There was no connection between my darkness and the toys I chose to make — the first one we produced was a fuzzy, tactile farm puzzle — rather, it came from seeing a niche that was imperfect and striving to improve it. But it gave me my first sense of control and power; suddenly there was the light, the joy, of creating to make people happy. I had that lightness inside me, after all — but it had taken until adulthood to find it.

Melissa Bernstein in in Westport, Connecticut, in October 2020. (Photo: Family handout)

I also embarked upon an additional mission; creating an online community called LifeLines. Designed as an overall wellness ecosystem, it’s meant to support people on their individual journeys towards emotional health. It’s the resource I wish I had growing up — I might have found self-acceptance sooner. Still, my path led me to create this virtual community to be a resource for others.

Allowing your child to explore what fascinates them is a way of accepting them in their totality — their darkness and their light, their ups and downs, their good and bad. Your child may need that validation from you right now that they don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to wonder about death and the meaning of life, and to see what those wonderings look like on paper or in poetry or photographs or whatever their self-expression might be.

And no matter how dark their thoughts might be, their destiny can still be full of light. 

Melissa Bernstein is the chief creative officer of Melissa & Doug and the founder of LifeLines.com.

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