Our children are seeing and hearing some very disturbing images and news right now. As parents, we want to do everything possible to teach our children the tools they will need to have a happy and successful life. We make sure that they understand to look in both directions when crossing a street. We tell them not to touch the stove when it is hot. We warn them about “stranger danger.” In most situations, we usually put their needs before our own.
There is one area of instruction where parents sometimes struggle in giving their children a highly needed survival skill - teaching their children to deal with emotional loss of any kind successfully. In all likelihood, our parents never provided us with this information either, which is why we do not think to pass it on to our children.
Did your parents ever sit you down and explain how to deal with the grief caused by loss effectively? Rather than provide formal instruction on this, they most likely passed on what they thought was useful information when needed. When you cried, they probably gave you logical reasons not to feel sad. The problem was that despite those logical reasons, you still felt sad but then tried to suppress the outward expression of those feelings. Sadness and grief are emotions, and emotions are not logical.
One of the reasons we can fail to give the best information is that we fail to look at their losses from a child’s perspective as adults. What they see as a significant loss may appear trivial to us.
I recall a friend telling me a story of when he was a child at the summer regatta with his dad. His dad had purchased him a helium-filled balloon. He lost his grip on the string, and the balloon floated away. It was a bright blue balloon with sea turtles and goldfish. As the balloon drifted off into the distance it appeared to him as though they were swimming away from him. When he cried, his parents told her not to feel bad, and they would get him a new one. He was still upset because he wanted that balloon, those fish, those turtles and 30 years later, my friend still remembers that balloon floating out over the lake and the deep sadness he felt.
Most people do not realize that children absorb 75% of the tools that they will likely use for the rest of their lives in dealing with any situation by the time they are two to three years old. Even before they have strong verbal skills, they are learning.
Here are six parenting tips that will help your children for a lifetime!
1. Listen with your heart and not your head. Allow your child to express all of their emotions without judgement, criticism, or analysis. It would help if you remembered that while this loss may not seem that dramatic to you, it is to your child. Offering him or her reasons not to feel sad will not make your child feel any better. At that moment, they do not need judgement.
2. Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual. Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong because he or she will automatically say “nothing.” Your child may often remember that the last time they felt sad, you gave them a logical reason, not to feel that way, so it is easier to say they are fine.
3. You are the adult, and you need to go first! Tell the truth about your own grief. This will make it safe for your child to open up as well. If you were not directly affected by the loss that has affected your child, remember and tell them of a similar or parallel loss in your life. It would help if you did this without any comparisons; this is not a competition over who should be hurting the most, but rather an opportunity to create a chance for your child to feel safe sharing their feelings.
4. Remember that each of your children are unique, and each has a unique relationship to the loss event. They will not respond in the same way. It would help if you let them know that this is normal and that one is not right in their response and the other wrong.
5. Be patient. Please don’t force your children to talk. It may take a little time for them to feel comfortable expressing their feelings. They may still be expecting you to tell them why they should not feel bad.
6. Never say, “Don’t feel sad” or “don’t feel scared.” Sadness and fear are the two most normal feelings attached to loss of any kind. They are part of being human. Rather than say these things, offer them a comforting hug.
These are just six first steps to better assist your children in coping with loss, but they are an important start. Please keep in mind that loss is a part of life, and as a parent, you can teach your children positive tools to deal with that pain in their hearts successfully.
Please consider enrolling in our workshop “Helping Children Navigate Change” for more helpful strategies.