All of America is waiting and watching!
Waiting for the full impact and aftermath of Irma hitting Florida, of the strongest earthquake to hit Mexico in a century, of the next school or workplace shooting. Just as the world watched in shock and horror as the Trade Center towers came down on 9/11 some 16 years ago.
During times of grief and loss adults go into triage and crisis management mode where they are very task oriented and become focused on the basic necessities.
Often children and teens fall by the wayside during these times; but, they often feel the brunt of trauma and grief just as much if not more than adults.
Below are 10 tips for helping children deal with grief and loss:
“Children grieve differently than adults do. The younger the child, the less they have the ability to understand death and loss.” (Highmark Caring Place)
Children and teens definitely feel the emotions surrounding a traumatic experience or the loss of a loved one; however, they usually don’t possess the language or coping skills to be able to deal with the change. Imagine an alien from another planet or someone visiting from another country where they don’t speak your language. They can pick up on facial expressions and read the tension and distress in adults; but, they may not fully understand the gravity of what is happening.
And make no mistake, children do grieve. “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.” (Dr. Alan Wolfelt)
Obviously, the age & functional ability of the child as well as the circumstances of the loss or trauma can vary greatly. Therefore the following steps should be adjusted to meet those needs.
- Structure and Routine – As much as you are able, do what you can to keep the normal routine. Even more so than adults, children need routines and structure in their lives. They can’t control much of themselves let alone the environment around them and need help and modeling to learn how to establish an equilibrium both within and without. “As children grow and their executive networks begin to mature, they are progressively better at regulating their own emotions, resisting impulses, and organizing their time.” (Karen Spangenberg Postal, PhD, Psychology Today)
- Nutrition – If possible, you want your children to eat and drink as healthy as they are able. They should avoid candy, soda and artificial additives and dyes which can further throw off their body chemistry and energy level. That being said there’s nothing wrong with a bit of comfort food or a special treat here and there, particularly in situations where there are fond memories associated (ex. Baking cookies together, Friday night pizza and a movie). A good resource is Nutrition: What Every Parent Needs To Know by the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Sleeping – We’ve all seen what happens to our children when they don’t get proper sleep and it’s not pretty for anybody! “Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development.” (National Sleep Foundation) This is why healthy sleep hygiene is so important. Things like: a routine bedtime and bedtime ritual, no caffeine and little sugar in the evening, no electronic devices an hour before bedtime and no devices in the bedroom, ensuring comfort – darkness, temperature and noise.
- Activity – Keeping your kids active has a number of benefits. It helps to distract them from the grief and loss, it keeps their Circadian Rhythm in check, and can provide positive interactions, euphoria and gets their endorphins going.
- Connect With Them – Our kids need connection and the younger they are the more important that that connection come from primary caregivers. As they get older that focus shifts to their friend groups; but, connection with their immediate family is still valuable. “Effective parenting is almost impossible until the positive connection with your child has been re-established” (Dr. Laura Markham, Aha! Parenting)
- Shield Them – While it is important for our children to connect with us and we have previously established that they are capable of sensing tension, sadness and other emotions, our children also need a level of protection from the world around us. They don’t need to know all of the gory details surrounding a loss or a traumatic event. If there is family drama, they don’t need to be involved in it and certainly shouldn’t be used as pawns or messengers in the issues. In the case of major traumatic events (such as Hurricane Irma or 9/11), turn off the 24/7 news coverage. They don’t need to be bombarded by all of the images and sounds whether it’s accurate or sensationalized. “Children do not have a sense of spatiality and rarely understand the concept that these events have occurred far from their current location. Instead, these almost live events can cause feelings of unsafety, hopelessness, and helplessness, which are often externalized by conduct problems.”(National Center for Biotechnology Information)
- Talk to Them – This tip may seem in direct opposition to the previous one; but, let’s face it, our kids aren’t stupid. They can often spot BS. They are going to have questions surrounding loss, death and traumatic events, just as we will. Some of those questions will shock you with how insightful they are. Some will be hard to hear and even harder to answer. “But it’s important to remember that no matter what the question, the conversation that results, the continued connection made with the child, is more important than the answer.” (Highmark Caring Place)
- Help Create A Way To Say Goodbye – This can be something to discuss with them. For some this may be attending the funeral service which can help them move through the grieving process. If they are unable or unwilling to attend, helping them develop some sort of event to memorialize the person or tragedy. This can include spreading ashes, planting a tree, continuing traditions or creating new ones at holidays or anniversaries.
- Don’t Rush Healing – In cases of death, loss or trauma a person will still be in the initial wave of shock and denial sometimes up to a month after the initial event. While we want to protect our children and make everything ok, rushing them into traditional counseling too soon can actually be more detrimental than helpful. In addition, it’s important to remember that children have a shorter shelf life and won’t be able to process the loss all at once. “It’s all right to allow the child to be sad, or upset, or ‘not OK.’ We don’t have to feel that we need to ‘fix’ the child.” (Highmark Caring Place)
- Take Care of You Too – You are a battery! (Think of Neo in the Matrix) Your kids battery is connected to your battery. If your battery goes down, then their battery will too. And while you may be telling yourself you can’t afford to take time to care for yourself, you won’t be able to help anybody if you burn out. In addition, adults aren’t much more than glorified toddlers. We get cranky when we get tired, hungry or sick just like they do. If you’re always exhausted, A. you won’t be able to handle the loss or grief yourself and B. you’re going to snap at them much more easily.
Next Post: Will be on Psychological First Aid
Disclaimer: The author of this post is not engaged in a therapeutic relationship with the reader and cannot give counseling advice without a confidential appointment. Readers should be sure to consult with a licensed therapist in their area or seek emergency medical attention if they are experiencing difficulty.
Parenting & Family Solutions – www.parentfamilysolutions.com
Highmark Caring Place – https://www.highmarkcaringplace.com/cp2/grief/grievingChildren.shtml
National Center for Biotechnology Information – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4803729/
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-better/201111/how-structure-improves-your-childs-brain