Probably the most unfortunate reality of working with so many kids each week at Birons is that we inevitably become aware of, and involved in, the saddest and hardest part of some of their lives. Inevitably each year on of our students loses a parent. Sometimes we are aware of this, and sometimes we find out after speaking to the child’s caretakers because of a change in behavior.
No parent, coach, teacher, or friend ever wants to consider such a worst case scenario; but, if you or someone you know is going through a loss, here are some general guidelines for each age group:
- Infants - it’s hard enough to know why your baby is crying on a good day and console them, a loss of a parent makes this even harder. You may notice sleep pattern changes, colic may arise, and the child may have bouts of uncontrollable crying. When you are dealing with the loss yourself, the situation is often overwhelming. The best thing for the infant is to have others help you either with chores or to take turns caring for the child. By taking care of the day-to-day needs of the baby, it will help them (and you) immensely.
- Preschoolers - While 3-5-year-olds can finally speak about their feelings, certain concepts still elude them. ‘Never’ is not a concept they can grasp, and when you combine this with their propensity to ask questions, be prepared to explain and discuss what happened many times. This generally goes away with time and as they age into elementary school age. Depending upon the advice of your doctor and child’s psychologist, talking about the loss can be important, as it helps them remember and conceptualize their identity, helping prevent feelings of loss or exclusion from their peers as they age. Don’t be worried if the child appears ‘fine’, as this is usually a symptom of their naivety of the situation.
- Elementary Schoolers - Around the age of six, a child can finally begin to grasp that a loved one is not going to come back. This can lead to major trust issues, as well as intense separation anxiety from their parent. The important thing is not to rush the child unnecessarily. They also will begin to ask concrete, biological questions about the lost loved one. They may be concerned about the same thing happening to you. Group play is also extremely helpful for children of this age, so get them involved in school or sports.
- Middle Schoolers - the early onset of puberty compounds the sense of vulnerability and insecurity that children feel after a loss. Expect grades to be affected, and make sure you are actively communicating with your child’s teachers and coaches about what is going on. Most likely the child will also express their grief by acting out physically, and proactively giving the other adults in their life the information about the loss will allow them to discipline and redirect most appropriately.
- High Schoolers - teenagers deal with loss internally with their emotions, and externally with their actions. For most teens, by hiding their emotions and not talking about the situation they are showing that they are old enough and independent enough to ‘handle it’. In truth, they may feel more comfortable being vulnerable about the loss with a friend, mentor, or coach. This is why informing those adults is so important. Finally, the likelihood that the teen will engage in high-risk behavior increases after a loss. Talking to them about how you are dealing with emotions yourself, and what you are tempted to do out of anger, guilt, or sadness, is a great step.
The most important points that I can give is to inform as many adults in the child’s life as you are comfortable about the loss. This will help those caregivers reassure and redirect the child. Second, stick as much as possible to habits, routines, and the ‘usual’. Any change or ‘lack of control’ will be hard for the child, not to mention for you. Finally, seek help yourself! You are not alone, nor should you be. Sometimes it takes a village to help an adult as well.
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