I spent today with a boy whose father had, in his terms, passed away. When I want to know how to help a child, I ask Carrie, mom, school counselor, and sage. Here is her advice.
Loss, Crisis, and Grief: Special Considerations for Children
For children who are grieving, this is the beginning of their understanding of the life experience of loss, crisis, and death. You have an important task to support them at this present moment and, at the same time, lay the foundation for their life experience with the emotions of these experiences. Here are some suggestions to support you as you support the children you care for:
Allow children to express their feelings in ways that are appropriate to them. Children are resilient. Nourished by love, protection, guidance, and attention, they can spring back after even the most horrendous traumatic events. The parent is often the most influential factor in the recovery of the child. One of the goals for treatment of traumatized children is to help the child face the truth of what has happened. This involves enabling the child to draw, sing, dance, talk, or engage in some other form of self-expression that is also a self-soothing activity.
Speak honestly. Use the language of death when speaking with children. Refrain from stating that the person who has died has “gone away”, “is lost”, “was sick” or “is sleeping”. Those statements can be very frightening to children and will delay their ability to accept and understand that the person will not come back.
Give clear and concise information regarding the death of the loved one, or children may construct their own stories to fill in the holes. Encourage children to ask questions. Make sure you understand the question and offer honest answers to the questions asked. (At times, adults think they understand the question and give an answer to something the child was not even asking. Not only is this confusing to the child, but it sends the message you don’t understand. Hint… before offering an answer, ask a question about their question… “Do you mean…? Or encourage more information for your own understanding….”Tell me more about what you are thinking so I can help you with your question.”)
Spend more time with children and let them be more dependent on you during the months following the trauma. For example, allow the child to cling to caregivers more often than usual. Physical affection is very comforting to children who have experienced trauma.
Provide play experiences to help relieve tension. Younger children in particular may find it easier to share their ideas and feelings about the event through non-verbal activities such as drawing.
Encourage older children to discuss their thoughts and feelings with one another. This helps reduce their confusion and anxiety related to the trauma and gives them a peer support system in this time.
Keep regular schedules for activities such as eating, playing, and going to bed to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.
When your child is interested or ready, share with him/her your beliefs about death.
Help your child find a way to honor the life of the person who was important to them. Some ideas are to write a letter or a poem; plant a tree; create a collage of words, pictures or both; make a special meal; work for and present a donation in the person’s memory to an organization which represents something the person valued.
Be Alert to These Changes in a Child’s Behavior:
Refusal to return to school and “clinging” behavior, including shadowing the mother or father.
Persistent fears related to the catastrophe like the fear of being permanently separated from parents.
Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child.
Loss of concentration, irritability, and change in grades or attitude toward school or other regular activities.
Startling easily and jumpy behavior.
Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found.
Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster.
Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep, and bed-wetting, persisting more than several days after the event.
If these behaviors persist, consider seeking professional support for your child.