Updated: Sep 20, 2020
The vast majority of adults do everything possible to provide the children in their life with the best information and tools to give them the opportunity for a successful life. They are, in a sense, a blank canvas. On that canvas, we paint our dreams and expectations for a bright and promising future. We try to make sure that we pass on all of the useful information that we learned when we were growing up. At the same time, we try to learn from any of the mistakes that our parents made and not repeat those same mistakes with our children. More often than not, these mistakes were not intentional; but we may have found that certain things that we learned are not as helpful as we would have liked, so we attempt to avoid passing them on to our children.
Most of us never give serious thought to how our children learn and develop survival skills and behaviour patterns. Surprisingly, children will learn 75% of the basic tools and concepts that they will use throughout their lives by the age of three. Even before they have developed any advanced communication skills, they have learned these things from watching what those around them do and listening to how they deal with day-to-day issues. Children learn an additional 20% of these skills, which will define how they deal with daily problems in the next ten to twelve years. As a result, 95% of their decision-making powers are established by age fifteen. Although this is not a recent discovery, it is certainly not one that most parents know. Our children model our behaviour patterns, even when we hope they are not paying attention.
An easy way to see this is when your children say things that you deem inappropriate. Sometimes you may hear your child make a critical comment of another that you feel is inappropriate, only to discover that they are repeating something that you said. You may have heard your child say something that you consider to be “adult language” and found yourself shocked that those words came from your child’s mouth. When you quiz them about it, they often say, “but you said that!”
The mind of a child is like a sponge and soaks up everything with which it comes in contact. Our children are not only listening to what we say, but also what they hear from others and through television, video games, and everything else around them. Part of our job as guardians is to try and act as a filter and correct any misinformation they are absorbing before it becomes an established part of their belief system.
Unfortunately, however, any misinformation that we may have learned and set in our belief systems, as we were growing up, is likely to be passed on as well. This misinformation can be particularly important when it comes to how to deal with losses in our lives successfully.
How did we learn about coping with grief?
Take a moment to try to recall how you learned to cope with grief as a child. Did a parent or trusted adult sit you down on their knee and try to explain to you how to deal with the emotional pain of a broken or lost toy, or the friend who knocked you to the ground when you were playing? In all likelihood, they probably never even thought of this as a potential grief issue. Most people equate grief with death but do not realize that every change we encounter in life has elements of grief attached.
Grief is a part of being human. When, as a child, you encountered an experience of this type, the adults around you likely gave you a variety of logical reasons why you should stop feeling sad. Now ask yourself if these intellectual reasons actually made you feel better? Chances are they did not, but you tried to put on a brave face because you were trying to follow directions from someone in whom you had trust. What you were doing was suppressing and burying your feelings because that was your perception of what you thought you were supposed to do in that situation. Without even realizing it, you were establishing the first behaviour pattern that you would use for the rest of your life in dealing with loss. The underlying message was that you could use logic to deal with your emotions and that the best way to deal with sad emotions was to stuff them down!
Grief is an emotion!
No matter how you try to use logic to deal with the emotional pain of grief, that grief still exists. You may convince yourself that the emotional pain is relatively insignificant, but the fact that you feel it shows just how significant that pain was in the moment it occurred.
How do adults help the children in our lives “feel better?”
When we see our children are upset about anything, it is only natural to want them to feel better. Trying to minimize that pain with reasons why they should not feel bad may give us the sense that they are feeling better when the tears stop flowing, but it is not helping them to learn how to deal with pain in their lives effectively. Nor is offering them a treat if they will stop crying. It can suggest to them that there are rewards for hiding their feelings. Doctors used to regularly give children a lollipop as a reward for getting a shot. If this happened to you, did that shot hurt any less? Probably not. For some of us, this is when we began to equate sweet treats with a positive way to deal with our feelings.
The reason that we are spending all of this time in reminding you of possible childhood experiences is to establish how you learned your first skills in dealing with loss. If you are now beginning to remember the limited value these things had on dealing with the feelings that you experienced, you will be in a better position to see that these may not be the best tools for you to pass on to your children.
While we are generally very good at accepting happiness in our children, most of us, without even realizing it, send our children regular messages that sad or unhappy feelings are unacceptable. We tell them such things as:
· Big girls and boys don’t cry!
· If you are going to cry, go to your room!
· You need a time out!
· Don’t be a cry baby!
· Laugh, and the word laughs with you; cry and you cry alone!
So, how can we really help children deal with sad events?
We do not want our children to be sad. None of us want our children to spend their lives in tears. There are better tools we can offer them, however, to deal with painful and unhappy feelings.
Instead of giving them reasons why they should not cry, we need to offer them the chance to use words to express their feelings.
How do we do this? If you ask them what is wrong, they will likely tell you! It is also possible if you have a history of giving them a logical reason not to cry, that they will tell you little or nothing. That does not mean that you are too late to make a change. It merely means that you need to try a different approach.
The best way to get them to share their feelings is to remember that, as an adult, you may need to go first. You may need to relate to them a similar experience that you had as a child to make it feel safe for them to share their feelings.
For example, if your child’s favourite toy is broken and he or she is now crying or displaying sad or unhappy emotions, you might tell them about how sad you felt when you lost a favorite toy. Then follow this short remembrance by asking them to talk about their feelings related to their loss. In doing this, you have let them know that the feelings of emotional loss are normal and that you care about their feelings. Given a chance to express this pain allows them to express their feelings rather than just stuffing them inside.
If you were lucky, your parents did take those actions, in which case you need to do the same for your child! In doing so, you provide a mechanism for your child to share their feelings, rather than stuff them inside.
Grief is cumulative
What many people do not realize is that grief is cumulative. Each loss that is stuffed inside, rather than allowed to be expressed, stays inside. With each loss that is not expressed and released, children (and adults) add to that already expanding stash of internalized pain. The more pain that is stuffed and stored, the less room there is for joy. When that internal kettle of pain becomes filled to the brim, it can burst! That is when we see children (and adults) lash out in anger at the slightest provocation. By offering our children a chance to express and share their emotional pain, we can prevent it from reaching this stage.
By establishing this pattern of release at an early age, we are giving our children better tools to deal with the even more significant losses in life.
Thus far, we have spoken about what we, as adults, might classify as “minor grief issue.” While these may seem enormous issues to our children, we know in our hearts that they will face bigger ones in their future.
Once again, we are going to ask you to go back in your memory to that first little boy or girl on whom you had your first childhood crush. I remember when the first boy who I thought I “loved” in junior high dumped me for another girl, I was so hurt. When my mother saw how sad I was, she told me that “there were plenty of fish in the sea!” To me, he was hardly a fish, and I never thought I would get over it. If instead, she had shared how painful it was when this happened to her. And then invited me to tell her about my feelings, rather than to minimize them - I would have likely recovered sooner. It would have also lessened the fear that the next boy I liked was eventually going to dump me as well. If we establish a behaviour pattern, at an early age, of carrying all of the baggage of past relationships in future ones, rather than having a mechanism for releasing it, we often doom those relationships before they have a chance to begin.
When we move to potentially even more impactful emotional losses, such as the death of a grandparent or other family member or friend, the need for your child to have useful tools for emotional release becomes even more critical. As the adult, you need to make this release both possible and safe for your child. You may think that you have to “be strong” for your child. If you do not allow them to see and understand the emotional impact this loss, or a similar one, had on you, they will not have the tools to move through this experience effectively. You may need to sit down with them and share the impact this loss (or a similar one) had on you. It does not mean that you have to go into graphic detail, but you need to share enough that it is safe for them to express their feelings as well. In this case, you should ask them if there are things that they wish they could have said to this person or things that they wish they could have done with them. Allowing them to voice their feelings will release some of that emotional pain, rather than encouraging them to stuff those feelings and “be strong” as well. Their strength will come from the emotional release that you facilitate.
A key point to remember
When you are inviting your children to share their feelings, you must do this without analysis, criticism, or judgment. You may be tempted to fall back on offering logical and intellectual reasons why they should not feel bad. Do not do this! Let them express their pain, and then invite them to share their fond memories. Once again, this will better help them move beyond the loss, rather than internalizing their feelings.
Some concluding comments and a tool to help you.
Most parents, grandparents, and teachers do a fantastic job of giving their children the tools that they need to be successful in life. When you think about it, a child is the most complex thing that you will ever bring home that does not come with an instruction manual! The challenge is that we can only pass on to our children the things that we have learned. If you never learned truly useful tools in dealing with loss in your life, you have no valuable information to pass on to your children.
In November, Bruff and Associates will be offering a workshop on the topic of “Helping Children with Loss.” As Advanced Grief Recovery Specialists, we will discuss the tools, no matter the age of your child, that may be helpful to guide ,your children in these uncertain times. We will discuss the myths associated with grief, have group collaborations to share our experiences and find new methods for helping our children cope. This workshop is not counselling; it is an educational workshop that explains how to talk to your children in a safe and caring way about dealing with the losses they experience. It will open the door to better communication with your children so that when they have real problems, they will feel safe in coming to you for the answers. It will help give you the opportunity to be the best parents and guardians possible. Children and grief issues go hand in hand, but you can give them the tools to make a loss, something that they can handle more effectively!
If you would like more information about this workshop and if it is right for you, please complete the following request for a free 30 minute consultation.