They say that it takes a village to raise a child. Parents, extended family members, family friends, neighbours, caregivers, teachers, and many others, influence a child’s overall social, emotional, and psychological growth.
As a community, it is our responsibility to teach our children effective life skills that will benefit them over their lifetime. When it comes to the inevitable losses that a child will experience, it too is our responsibility to teach them how to effectively heal and move forward.
Sadly, we haven’t been taught how to deal with loss when it happens. As adults we struggle with our own emotional reactions to loss and so naturally, we struggle with addressing the painful emotions of our children. Very often we end up teaching our children the information we were taught. We may repeat things like, “Don’t feel bad, you’ll make new friends”, or “Don’t cry, everything will be okay”, or “It’s okay, we will get you a new [dog, cat, bike]”.
Every child has the capacity and natural ability to work through their grief, regardless of their genetics, gender, and ethnic, cultural, or religious background. We are all born with a natural tendency to feel and express our emotions when we have them.
According to The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, lifelong skills and emotional health is a result of more than just genetic make-up. Early childhood intervention, education, and experiences, all shape the brain pathways and architecture and how well a child manages stress and any life challenges they may face.
The more equipped we are to deal with our painful emotions, the more equipped we will feel to teach our children these very tools. Teaching our children how to identify emotions, acknowledge emotions, and express emotions has a significant impact on their emotional intelligence over time. It teaches them how to recognize and address their emotions in a healthy and healing manner, rather than avoid, deny, or push down the feelings using substances or distractions. Additionally, it creates safe and trusting relationships, so that when they do experience a loss, they will feel courageous enough to share their experience with us.
The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative also explains that creating a safe, trustworthy relationship with our children peer will boost positive neurological connections and will decrease their risk of participating in harmful behaviors and choices.
Here are some effective strategies we can teach our children that grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.
1. Monkey See, Monkey Do. I am sure most of us can recall accidentally saying a “bad word” in front of a child and having them repeat the word back to you. We instantly regret what we have said and hope it is not repeated again. On a positive note, what children “see” as sadness, will most likely be what they “do”. Showing your children that sadness is normal and natural is best shown through real life examples. As an adult, if you have feelings of sadness, it is okay for children to see this experience you are going through. Children are also curious and may ask you “what’s wrong?”. It is also very healthy to explain in an appropriate manner, what is causing your sadness. This demonstrates to our children that sadness is a normal human experience. If you make the decision to push sadness to the side, it teaches your child that whenever someone feels sad, they should stop feeling that way, and brush it off.
2. Avoid Saying “Don’t Feel Bad” or “Don’t Cry”. Let’s say it was Billy’s first time at the dentist. He tells his mom that he is scared and does not want to go. Mom then tells Billy he needs to go to the dentist in order to have healthy teeth. Billy agrees, but becomes scared of the unfamiliar environment and starts to cry in the operatory. Mom then tells him, “Don’t cry, everyone can hear you”. Billy learns very quickly that his sad feelings cannot be expressed or shared with others. Additionally, it is unintentionally communicated that his feelings are now a burden to others. An alternative comment to help Bill could be, “I know this is a scary time, and I am here for you.” or “It is okay that you are feeling scared, I will help you through this.” As adults, it is important that we acknowledge how our children are feeling and validate their emotional vulnerability.
3. Importance of Emotional Availability. It is okay as an adult, not to have the answers to everything. Thankfully, when it comes to loss we do not need to intellectualize or have “the right answers” in order to heal hearts. Being emotionally available to the child, means listening to them like a “heart with ears,” and with no judgment, analysis or criticism. Sometimes, the most effective way of helping children through loss is not all the “smart” comments you can say, but rather being emotionally present and listening with your heart. When we are emotionally available, it teaches the child that they have a safe place to express how they are feeling. If you don’t know what to say, it is okay to say that to them, and then offer them a hug. As adults, we can appreciate how painful it feels when our family or friends say things that may be intellectually true, but don’t appeal to our broken heart. It is the same thing for our children.
If while reading this article you became aware of one or more losses that have impacted your life and you are struggling to move forward, we have the tools to help you move beyond the pain. Contact us today for your free telephone consultation or to book an appointment.
This article was written by Gina Baretta, Psychology Intern and Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs.
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