I worked with lower income families of young children in my previous career. I did this through mentoring and training both the parents and the staff at the childcare center the child attended. I frequently helped teachers and parents work together to come up with behavior modification plans for children who were struggling.
The teachers at one of the preschools I worked with had been complaining of a four-year-old boy’s behavior for weeks. He was defiant, aggressive and disruptive. They reported that my usual set of tools and strategies that I suggest were having no impact. The teachers and center director had spoken to Mom several times and she was as baffled by the situation as they were.
The center staff and the child’s mother were all frustrated, overwhelmed and defensive as we sat down for a meeting. The teachers said the behavior started the previous month. I then asked Mom if there had been any changes at home recently.
In a very short time frame:
- · His cousin who had been raised like his brother moved out of state.
- · His father was released from prison and was trying to build a relationship with him for the first time.
- · His step-grandfather who he spent weekends with was sent to Iraq.
- · He and his mother moved out of his grandparent’s home into their own apartment for the first time in his life.
Wow! No wonder this little guy’s behavior was out of control. To him, his whole world had spun out of control. Everything he knew had changed.
Mom She didn’t think about the impact on her child. She thought he was too young to notice. She was mistaken. He felt the changes deeply and didn’t know how to make sense of it. He showed his pain through throwing blocks, hitting other children, screaming and running out the door.
This child was grieving. Death doesn’t have to occur in order to feel grief or to mourn a loss. Children need their parents and other trusted caregivers to help them understand and process their grief. Here are some important things to consider:
- · Your child deserves your honesty. Don’t say “Daddy went on a little vacation” if you’re divorcing and he’s moved to another state. You aren’t helping your child by fabricating stories of the wonderful farm Fido is now enjoying when the family dog dies. Tell them the truth in a gentle way that is appropriate for their age and developmental level. If they don’t understand at first, keep talking about it until they do. Take a break if the conversation becomes overwhelming and come back to it another time.
- · Use books, DVDs and props to get the conversation going. Your local library or bookstore likely has a wide variety of material available on death, divorce, moving and other difficult scenarios. Use books or a movie as a starting point to discuss your child’s feelings. Try role-playing with puppets, dolls or stuffed animals to help illustrate the points when speaking to younger children.
- · Don’t make promises you can’t keep. My daughter frequently begs me to tell her that I will never die. It’s so tempting to give in and make that promise because I know she desperately wants to hear it. It’s better for her to assure her that I’m doing everything in my power to stay healthy and safe so that I can live a long life.
- · Allow the child to grieve. Don’t attempt to rescue them from their sad feelings. Grieving is a normal part of life. It is important that your child learns that these feelings are okay and develops healthy coping mechanisms for processing their feelings.
- · Help children find tools for coping. Recognizing and talking about feelings are important tools for overall emotional health. Younger children may benefit from having something they can hold and look at, such as a photo book. Older children may explore their feelings through writing, art, music, drama or other hobbies.
- · Realize that grieving takes time. There is no standard time frame or schedule when it comes to the grieving process. Some children will work through it quicker than others.
- · Get help if your child is struggling. If your child seems to be having an especially difficult time dealing with the situation, seek professional assistance. A children’s therapist can access your child’s emotional state and devise a treatment plan to help your child through this difficult time.
- · You can’t help your child work through their grief if you aren’t working through your own. You can’t help your child if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Just as you would for your child, get help for yourself if you are having trouble processing your feelings.
Don’t make the same mistake as the mother of the little boy who was acting out at the preschool. Children are very aware of their surroundings and often pick up that something upsetting is happening based on the way the adults are behaving. Even babies can be impacted by losing the people, environment or routines they’ve come to count on.
Loss can be very traumatic for a child. If they aren’t given the tools needed to process and cope with their grief, it could lead to emotional and behavioral problems down the road. It’s true that children are resilient and often bounce e back quickly. However, they need to understand what is happening and work through their feelings of grief before they can move forward.