When the news is seemingly full of tragic events, it’s difficult to sort through our own feelings as adults, let alone tactfully and effectively help our children deal with their emotions too! In light of recent events in Hobson’s own hometown as well as Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, we thought some resources might be helpful as you guide your children toward making sense of the world.
The following is taken from a National Association of School Psychologists pamphlet posted by Brookdale School in Naperville.
Helping Children Cope with Loss, Death, and Grief
Tips for Parents
Children growing up today are more aware of death than adults may realize. They see it on television and movie screens and read about it in the news media. Many of them will have to face the death of someone they know before they reach maturity.
Whether the death is of a loved one or someone in the school or community the child knows, it is important that a child be guided to an understanding of what has happened and what it means. It isn’t always easy for adults to know how to do that. This brochure offers some helpful pointers.
What should we tell children about a death?
Children should be told about a death by someone close to them, and they should be told the truth. Children have different understandings of death at different ages. Find out the particular child’s viewpoint. The child needs to understand that the death has occurred, that it is final and that is all right to express feelings.
Adults must encourage children to accept the reality of death. Children always know when they are not being told the truth about something important.
How do children react to death?
Like adults, children react to traumatic situations with disbelief, bodily distress, anger, guilt, anxiety, and panic. Children and adults follow a common process as they work through their grief.
A child’s initial reaction may be denial and protest. The child cannot quite believe the loved one is dead and attempts, sometime with anger, to regain this person. Pain, fear, and despair may follow as the child begins to understand that the person really is gone forever. Finally, there may be hope as the child begins to accept the death and reorganize life without the loved one.
However, it would be misleading to suggest that all children will follow a predictable pattern. Children often act out their feelings about death in ways that seem inappropriate to adults. A child in denial may simply go outside and play as if nothing happened. Children may not be able to say what they feel in words and may depend on body language and behavior to vent feelings.
Children may act out as a way of working out grief and anger at life’s perceived injustice. Perceptive adults should try to understand what this behavior really means.
Childhood bereavement may also be more long-term than an adult’s. Do not be surprised to see grief return on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays and during significant life events such as graduation. Also, do not be surprised to hear more detailed questions as the child grows and is better able to comprehend the answers.
How can children be encouraged to express their grief?
Give children every opportunity to ask questions, discuss memories of the person who has died and unburden feelings. Don’t be afraid of tears or angry reactions and don’t be afraid to express your own grief in front of the children. Let the child know that you are hurting too. Share memories and tears together. If you hide your hurt from the child, he/she will know something is wrong, but not know what to do. They may even feel they did something to hurt you. Parents who openly express their own emotions free their children to do the same.
Children should feel free to express their grief in their own way. A child may express anger at the loved one for “leaving.” Or a child may make an honest statement like “I’m glad it wasn’t me.” These reactions are normal.
Children should know that it is all right to have and express such feelings.
Encourage children to reach out to adults other than their parents as well – a grandparent, aunt or uncle, clergy or should counselor. This is especially important if parents are too upset themselves to cope with their children’s feelings. For children whose grief is deep and sustained, provide every opportunity to talk about their loss. Then help them get out of themselves and into social activities appropriate for their age.
Are there any reactions that can be harmful to a child?
Avoid telling children to “be brave” or “be strong” for the sake of younger children or a parent who is taking the death hard. Children who keep grief bottled up inside may develop more serious problems later. It’s better to be realistic and say, “Yes, it’s tough” or, I feel bad too.”
Family religious beliefs can provide needed strength and comfort. However, avoid statements like “Your brother went to sleep and God took him home,” or “God took Daddy because God wants good people in heaven.” The child may come to fear going to sleep or being “good”.
Children are an integral part of the family and should be included in significant occasions. For children, as well as adults, the ceremony surrounding death is of enormous significance. If the children will be attending the visitation or wake and funeral, explain in advance some of the details. Tell them what to expect. Put them at ease by describing what will happen during the visitation or service so they understand why it is being done. Allow the children to verbalize their feelings and concerns about any details they don’t understand.
Helping Children Cope
The following tips will help parent support children who have experienced the loss of parents, friends, teachers, or other significant people in their lives. .
• Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences: Give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.
• Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings: all children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences.
• Grieving is a process, not an event: Parents and schools need to allow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child. Pressing children to resume “normal” activities without the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions.
• Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the children through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
• Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death: Give children information at the level that they can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
• Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death: Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.
• Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way: We all grieve in different ways and there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.
• Children will need long-lasting support: The more losses the child suffers, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
• Keep in mind that grief work is hard: It is hard work for adults and hard for children as well.
• Understand that grief work is complicated: Deaths that come unexpectedly can bring many issues that are difficult to comprehend. The sudden or violent nature of the death can further complicate the grieving process.
• Be aware of your own need to grieve: Focusing on the children in your care is
important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Adults who have lost a loved one will be far more able to help children work through their grief it they get help themselves. For some families, it may be important to see family grief counseling, as well as individual sources of support.
• Maintain a normal routine: Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.
• Spend family time: Doing enjoyable activities with you reinforces your children’s sense of stability and normalcy. Try to do things together, such as eat meals, read, play sports or games, go for walks, or bike rides, or watch nonviolent, nonstresful TV. When stressed, young children may also want more physical contact (e.g.’ hugs, holding hands, sitting on your lap, etc.). You know your children best, and your love and support are the most important factors to their sense of security.
• Emphasize people’s resilience. Focus on children’s competencies in terms of their daily life and in other difficult times. Help them identify what they have done in the past that helped them cope when they were anxious or upset. As appropriate, remind them that people who have weathered challenges, have come through even stronger.
• Be optimistic: Resilience studies indicate that people who cope best are comfortable expressing strong emotions, surrounded by caring family and friends, keep a positive view of the future, and utilize problem solving skills.
• Be a good listener and observer: Let children guide you as to how concerned they are or how much information they need. If they are not anxious or focused on the recent events, don’t dwell on them. You
should not bring the current stressful even to their attention if they do not appear to have any questions and/or that it is generating stress. But be available to answer their questions to the best of your ability. Young children may not be able to express themselves verbally. Pay attention to changes in their behavior or social interactions. Most school-age children can discuss their concerns although they may need you to provide an “opening” to start a conversation. Don’t push, but ask what they think about what has happened. Even if they don’t want or need to talk now, they may later. They will know you care about what they think and feel, and that you are available to answer their questions.
• Prepare your child for any anticipated family changes: If dealing with a change in family circumstance or financial concerns, do not hide the truth from your child. Children sense parents’ worry and the unknown can be scarier than the truth. Acknowledge that change can feel uncomfortable but reassure them that the family will be okay. However, avoid unnecessary discussions in front of your child (particularly a young child) of events or circumstances that might increase their stress. Help your child have a part in decision-making when appropriate. Remind your child of their ability to get through tough times, particularly with the love and support of family and friends.
• Do something positive with your children to help others in need: Making a positive contribution to the community helps people feel more in control and builds a stronger sense of connection. This can include encouraging student to help neighbors who might need assistance or organizing a project at a local shelter or community center.
• Know potential child stress reactions: Most children will not be affected to a significant degree and many who are will be able to cope with concerns over the current
events either independently or with the help of parents and other caring adults. However some children may have more extreme reactions because of personal circumstances. Symptoms may differ depending on age. Adults should contact a professional if children exhibit significant changes in behavior or any of the following symptoms over an extended period of time—irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, withdrawal from activities and friends.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has made these materials available free of charge to the public to promote the ability of children and youth to cope with unsettling events.