Stephen Sondheim has written lyrics that touch the heart, none more so than the lyrics to “Children Will Listen”. One line especially speaks to the important role we play in children’s lives… “Children will look to you for which way to turn”.
For most adults, helping children deal with feelings related to loss in their lives is very difficult. Whether the loss is death, divorce or some other life changing event, how the adults in a child’s life react will certainly impact the child. They are looking at us to understand how to react to what is happening.
While every individual is different, there are some very standard reactions children (and adults) feel; sadness, anxiety and confusion are common. Because children can move through emotions quickly at times, adults may assume that they are not grieving and are “over” the loss. But, we can expect that children (like adults) grieve for many different lengths of time depending on the relationship they had with the person who died. Grief is an ongoing process that has periods of more and less intensity.
A child’s developmental level is an important predictor in how they may react. Preschool children have “magical thinking” about death. They have trouble understanding its permanence and may expect the person who has died to come back and may ask repeatedly where the person is. As children gain more cognitive skills they begin to understand that death is final.
Adults may be able to see some signs that a child is not grieving in a healthy way. Young children may lose skills they once had in the areas of toileting, speech or independence. School aged children may not concentrate as well, become withdrawn, and have stomach aches or headaches. They may not sleep as well or have nightmares and may feel guilty or angry about what has happened. Pre-teens and teens may have flashbacks, avoid people and places they enjoyed before and engage in substance abuse or other high risk behaviors. If a child is experiencing these it may be a good idea to seek out services from a behavioral health specialist.
Helping our children can be as simple as allowing them to talk about the loss and listen to their feelings. Also, children may need to ask questions many times before they really understand what happened and may be confused and need clarification of what happened. Ask them questions and allow them the chance to talk about how they feel.
You can also be a role model; by talking about how you feel and how you are coping you will help them to see it is okay to grieve. If your children see you taking care of yourself it serves two purposes; you will have more strength to help them and they will learn—by your example—a great set of skills to help them as they confront the losses that life brings to us all.
NorthLakes Community Clinic (NLCC) has 11 clinic locations in Ashland, Balsam Lake, Hayward, Iron River, Minong, Turtle Lake, and Washburn. NLCC locations offer: medical, dental, mental health counseling, recovery services (substance abuse/AODA counseling, HOPE), chiropractic, pediatric speech therapy, pediatric occupational therapy, and prescriptions for patients. Clinics are open Monday through Friday. For more information visit http://northlakesclinic.org. NLCC is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.