As adults, we understand that loss is part of life. For young children, though, death, divorce and even the end of a special friendship can be traumatic and result in behavioural problems.
Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Jenny Perkel says that children experience loss acutely. “Often, they can manage their feelings of loss with support from parents, teachers and other adults in their lives, so an attitude of empathy is crucial. Parents should try to tune into what their child is feeling and needing – this will differ from child to child and the particular loss with which she is confronted.”
It’s important to respect your child’s reaction to an event. Children don’t feel less pain just because they’re young, so bear this in mind and don’t push a “chin up, get over it” approach.
When a parent dies
This is probably the most difficult experience for a child to deal with, explains Jenny. The surviving parent, therefore, plays a critical role in helping a grieving child to come to terms with the death of her mom or dad.
“In the case of the death (or permanent loss) of a parent, urgent measures should be put in place to help the child to process it. She should ideally be offered psychological support,” adds Jenny.
It is likely that 20% of children will experience the death of a parent by the end of high school, says psychologist Emilie Storch. “We know that the outcomes of these losses are affected by how adults encourage children to accept whatever feelings they have about the death. The helper must understand that the road to recovery involves pain and that children are not healed through shortcuts.”
Emilie says there are “no right words and no right actions” when dealing with death. What matters most is your ability to allow the child to take you by the hand and lead you through her grief. Your willingness to listen shows that she is cared for.
Developmentally, she says, children experience death differently.
- At 0-3 years: Separation of any kind is frightening and feels like death. The concept of death is, therefore, the same as absence.
- At 3-5 years: Children are aware of death, but it isn’t experienced as permanent. They still see dead people as having life and consciousness, and view death as both temporary and reversible.
- At 5-9 years: Death is personified, much like the “bogeyman”, and there’s an increasing acceptance that death is a reality and permanent. Children in this age group might still deny death, and often believe that if you’re good, you live, but if you’re bad, you die. Until about seven, children can also think that their own actions and thoughts can cause death.
- At 9 years and older: Children start recognising death as permanent and understand that it’s part of life.
Apart from seeking professional help, base your support on the following five steps, advises Emilie:
- Be aware of the child’s specific developmental level in terms of her perception of death.
- Recognise the grieving process – anger, shock, disbelief, despair, rebuilding – and take time to work through it.
- Commemorate the deceased person in both formal and informal ways (for example, planting trees, making a memory book, releasing balloons).
- Plan how to go on in spite of the loss (this is based on your own values and your unique family situation).
Find comfort in your faith, if this applies.
- Play is the best way for children to work through their feelings. Depending on the child’s age, she can explore her emotions with art, music and role playing. She can write letters, draw, build something, punch a pillow or play with puppets.
Loss of friendship
If your child’s best friend moves away, or a good friendship ends, she may be devastated, says parenting expert Jen Klein. Children form close and intense bonds, so give your child support and lots of time to grieve.
- Listen and allow your child to express her feelings, while also helping her to understand why the friendship ended (migration or a new clique at school).
- Answer her questions and avoid blame, while acknowledging any behaviour, such as possessiveness or bullying, which may have contributed to the friendship ending.
- If the friend moved away, use communication tools to help them keep in touch, but be honest about the fact that the friendship is different now, as both your child and her absent friend can, and should, make other friends.
- Acknowledge that the friend can’t be replaced and that it’s OK to be sad about the departure.
- A break-up is hard and you can’t protect your child from this. Simply listen, allow her to grieve and, after a while, gently encourage activities where she can meet new people.
Divorce and separation
Your ability to communicate successfully with your child, meet her emotional and physical needs for safety and security, and take care of yourself, are important factors in dealing with the pain of a broken marriage or long-term relationship.
Divorce can cause a child to feel unsure about her life and who will look after her, says psychologist Dr Jeanne Segal, so it’s your job to reassure her and make stability and love your top priorities.
Help your child acknowledge and express her feelings by listening to her, assisting her in finding the right words for her emotions and allowing her to be honest (even if you’re hurt by what she says).
Some coping strategies include providing order, stability and daily routine, giving only age-appropriate information, reassuring her that she has nothing to do with the divorce (children often blame themselves) and not bad-mouthing your estranged partner.
- Jenny says that when one parent has to work far away, regular communication is a good idea. For example, the child should know that she will talk to her parent every evening at 7pm.
- The child can help to compose letters, draw, send photos or make up stories for the absent parent, who should send back the same type of correspondence to the child.
- Above all, don’t buy expensive presents – material items are a poor substitute for love and attention, and can complicate the relationship in your child’s mind, as it’s an obvious attempt to “smooth over” the pain of separation. In addition, it will disturb your child’s value system.
- Keep the parent alive in the child’s mind, and do whatever you can to ensure the separations are brief.