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Parenting Grieving Children

Parenting Grieving Children

Parenting Grieving Children

Things to consider when parenting grieving children. Children are vulnerable. We have always known this, but in recent years, science has been able to better understand the architecture of the brain and how life’s experiences impact children’s development. This can be important for parents to understand as we seek to support our children after someone in their life dies. The death of someone brings children grief, sadness, and changes that can be stressful and require care and understanding.

With each new experience, children are shaping their understanding of the world around them. Young children are developing cognitive, emotional, and social capacities that serve as a foundation for healthy development throughout their lives. Experiencing stress is a healthy part of that development and important to learning to manage challenges in life. Yet, toxic stress, or high levels of stress for significant periods of time without supportive relationships to help, can cause mental, physical, and behavioral challenges throughout childhood and have impacts into adulthood.

The presence of a caring, loving adults in the lives of children is the number one factor that promotes health in children who are grieving a death. Understanding that there are many other variables to the health of children (cognitive ability, temperament, other outside influences, to name a few), having a caring, loving adult in their life supports healthy growth and development. Though grief is a stressful experience for children, it does not have to be debilitating.

Researchers Ted Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the phrase Post Traumatic Growth, positive change resulting from the struggle with trauma. Though much of their research has been with adults, new findings have shown post traumatic growth-like effects are also present in children who experience trauma and grief. Simply put, grief does not have to derail the future of children. They can live through, even thrive in the wake of grief and loss.

With these things in mind, here are a few tips for caring for your children who are grieving:Parenting Grieving Children

Consider Your Children’s Developmental Age

Young children under the age of five struggle to fully understand death. Because of this, they may ask the same questions over and over again as they, in time, come to understand death’s permanence and that they will no longer be able to interact with nor see their person who died. Though they are developing a better understanding of death, children ages six to ten will often struggle with a sense of guilt, sometimes equating their person’s death with their own behavior (i.e. had I been more obedient or spent more time with my person, they would not have died).

Pre-adolescents are often curious about the details of a person’s death. They are also developing a better understanding of death and can have more abstract thoughts associated with death. They might express anger that a person was not more careful or feel sadness that they do not get to see their person again, grieving the person’s absence in their life. Consider your children’s developmental age when offering them support. Be patient with them as they work through their feelings, try to understand the impact of the loss, and seek your reassurance that things will be okay.

Tell Your Children the Truth

Because we know that children are vulnerable, it is our instinct to want to protect them. Sometimes when parenting grieving children we do this by shielding them from certain realities that we may deem more than they can handle at the time. This can be challenging, though. Children overhear conversations with family or friends, or even hear information directly from family or friends. They read information on social media and hear about rumors related to people’s deaths. Because of this, it is important that children hear the truth about a person’s death from their primary source of support, which is often their parent or primary caregiver.

Telling children the truth opens communication changes and builds trust in the relationship. When we tell them the truth and answer their questions as honestly as we can, they will know that they can come to us with other challenges or struggles they might face. Some circumstances of death might bring an added challenge to sharing the truth with children. For instance, in the case of suicide or overdose.

Remember that you can give children information in age appropriate, bite-sized pieces as they come to understand death and the impact of the loss on their life. There is no reason to share gruesome details. The truth should always be handled with care. Though it may be difficult to share the truth in certain situations, know that it is better for them to know the truth from you than to hear it from others and struggle with the truth alone. Children are always better when they can relate to a caring, loving adult in their life.

Quick tips:

When parenting grieving children:
• Remember to be truthful with the child.
• Try not to use euphemisms (i.e. gone, lost, sleeping). Do not be afraid to use words such as death, dying, and dead.
• Give bite-sized pieces of information. When children are ready to hear more information, they will ask questions.
• Keep the conversation open. Let them know they can talk about or ask questions about the person who died or their grief. If you are not emotionally able to have these conversations, connect them to someone who can.
• If you don’t know the answer to a question they ask, that is ok. We do not have to have all of the answers.
• We also need to be truthful with our feelings. It is ok to cry in front of children. Let them see that it is ok to express their emotions around grief.

Create Routines and Fun Meaningful Moments with Your Children

Parenting grieving children can place many demands on our lives and so can grief. Between our daily responsibilities of running a home, working, and our own grief over the death, it can be challenging to find time to spend with our children playing, telling stories, and just being with one another. As difficult as this might be, creating routines and making time for fun, meaningful moments is important.

Routines provide predictability for children. After someone dies, children might become keenly aware of how unpredictable life can be. Routine offers children comfort as they are adapting to their loss. Though it is understandable that some routines might be challenging because of the death, establishing predictable routines such as dinner together, or set bedtimes, will support healthy growth and development even in the midst of grief and loss.

Bedtime or playtime also offers the opportunity for fun, meaningful moments with your children. Playtime or bedtime are wonderful settings for singing songs together, telling funny stories, sharing memories, communicating important beliefs, and reinforcing deeply held values. Your children will benefit from your attention and your presence with them will emphasize your care and love for them.

Parenting Grieving ChildrenIn Closing

Children are vulnerable. The death of someone in their life is stressful and challenging as they grieve. When parenting grieving children, the presence of a caring, loving adult in children’s lives promotes mental, emotional, and physical health as they develop into adulthood. Be patient with your children as they grieve and be patient with yourself as you navigate the many challenges to parenting while you are also grieving. You will not always have the right words to say and you will make some mistakes, we all do. Remember, you do not have to be perfect, just present.

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