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How to Help Children Grieve
By Rachael Moshman

helping children grieve
Photo Shutterstock Images

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 Iraq.

  • 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 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. 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 difficult time.

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 rlmoshman@yahoo.com.

 

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