In my previous career, I worked with lower income families. As I mentored and trained both the parents and staff at the childcare center the children attended, I frequently helped the teachers and parents work together to come up with behavior modification plans for struggling children.
The teachers at one of the preschools where I worked had been complaining for weeks about the behavior of a particular four-year-old boy. To address his defiance, aggressiveness and disruptions, the teachers had employed the techniques I suggested but with no success. The director of the center and her staff had spoken to Mom several times and found she was just as baffled by the situation as they were.
By the time we sat down for a meeting, everyone was frustrated, overwhelmed and defensive. When probed about the timing of his behavior problems, the teachers informed me that it had started about a month earlier. I then asked Mom if any changes had occurred at home in the last month or so. She went on to explain that 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, with whom he had spent weekends, had been deployed to Iraq.
- He and his mother moved out of his grandparent’s home and into an apartment of their own for the first time in his life.
Wow! No wonder this little guy’s behavior was unmanageable. To him, his whole world had spun out of control. Everything he knew had changed.
Because she thought her son was too little to notice, Mom didn’t consider the impact these transitions would have on her child. While she was taking these changes in stride, her son felt them deeply but didn’t know how to make sense of it all so he expressed his pain by 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 through their grief. Here are some important things to consider:
- Your children 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 your children 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 situations that lead to feelings of grief. Spend time reading the books with your child or watching a movie together in which the character endures a similar situation. Use the book or 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 has had many losses in her young life. She frequently begs me to tell her that I will never die. While it is very tempting to give in and make that promise because she desperately wants to hear it, I know it’s better 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 your children to grieve. Don’t attempt to rescue them from their sad feelings. Grieving is a normal part of life that, unfortunately, we will all experience more than once in our lifetime. It is important that your child learns 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, but they take time and practice to develop. Younger children may benefit from having something they can hold and look at, such as a photo book of the school and classmates they are leaving behind during a move. Older children may feel better after writing a letter to the person they have lost or expressing their feelings about a traumatic situation through 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 their grief more quickly while others take longer, sometimes regressing back through the various stages. Follow the child’s lead and allow as much time as is needed.
- Get help if your child is struggling. If your child seems to be having an especially difficult time dealing with the situation, you aren’t sure they understand what is happening or you feel it is too much to handle on your own, seek professional assistance. A children’s therapist, school guidance counselor or social worker specializing in grief can assess your child’s emotional state and devise a treatment plan to help your child through this difficult time.
- You can’t help your children work through their grief if you aren’t working through your own. It’s okay to let your children see you angry, sad or even crying. They will benefit from seeing that they aren’t alone in their grief. You can’t help your children if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Just as you would for your children, 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 in preschool. Children are very aware of their surroundings and, by observing the adults in their life, understand when something upsetting is happening. Even babies can be impacted by losing the people, environment or routines they’ve come to trust.
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 back quickly. However, they need to understand what is happening and work through their feelings of grief before they can move forward.