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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 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 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. I started out by asking the
teachers when they first noticed the behavior changes. They said it had been
about a month. I then asked Mom if there had been any changes at home in the
last month or so.
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 been spending weekends, was sent to
He and his mother moved out of his grandparents’ 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.
Children need our help to deal with their feelings when
their world spins out of control.
These were normal life events to 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 her the truth in a gentle way that
is appropriate for her age and developmental level. If she doesn’t
understand at first, keep talking about it until she does. 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. Read
the books with your child or watch 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
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. It’s
so tempting to give in and make that promise because I know she desperately
wants to hear it. Instead, I assure her that I’m doing everything in my
power to stay healthy and safe so that I can live a long life.
Even babies can be impacted by losing the people,
environment, or routines they’ve come to count on.
Allow the child to grieve. Don’t attempt to rescue him from his sad
feelings. Grieving is a normal part of life that, unfortunately, we all go
through more than once in our lifetimes. It is important that your child
learns that these feelings are okay and develops healthy coping mechanisms
for processing the 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. Older children may feel better after writing a letter to
the person they have lost or expressing their feelings 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 it quicker than others. 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 she
understands 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 access your child’s
emotional state and devise a treatment plan to help her through this
You can’t help your child work through their grief if you aren’t working
through your own. It’s okay to let your child see you angry, sad, or even
crying. Your child will benefit by seeing that they aren’t alone in their
grief. 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 children. 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. 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.
Rachael Moshman is a lifelong Florida resident, but hates the heat. She
holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education
with focuses in early childhood, infant/toddler development and special
needs. She is college instructor and a freelance writer who has written for
a variety of parenting magazines, www.scarymommy.com, www.adoption.com, and
has contributed to various adoption blogs. Her greatest accomplishment is
becoming the last mom to an amazing little girl through foster care
adoption. In addition to her husband and daughter, she lives with two cats
and a mannequin named Vivian. She is a magazine junky, own too many shoes,
and collects tons of recipes that she never attempts to make. She can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.