Helping Your Child Grieve a Loss

shutterstock_301610618No engaged parent is happier than her least happy child. It is very difficult for any of us to see our children in pain. However, grieving is adaptive suffering and knowing how to help our children through it, instead of suppressing it, is an important parenting skill. I will split my tips on this topic up into two sections: when you are not affected directly by the loss and when you are.

When it is not your loss also

Your teen might have been dumped by a crush. Or, your daughter may have failed to make the travel soccer team. Or, perhaps your child’s only and best friend moved away. There are many kinds of loss. Here are 10 suggestions for helping:

• Validate your child’s pain. It makes sense to hurt over a loss. Allow your child to express those thoughts and feelings without offering immediate reassurances. This is gruelingly difficult to do. However, many of us benefit by having company when in pain. Moreover, premature reassurances came come across as “please stop feeling badly now.” Later the odds are high that your child will appreciate your empathic companionship.

• Ask your child how she’s doing but don’t insist on a conversation. Part of grieving is choosing when to not think or talk about the loss.

• Ask other family members to reach out to your child, shutterstock_63342151checking in on a semi-regular basis; it isn’t sufficient to say to a child, “let me know if I can help.” Again, though, the emphasis should be that it is your child’s choice whether to talk or not when the other person reaches out.

• Encourage your child to memorialize the loss. There are so many ways to do this. Writing a letter–whether it is sent or not–drawing, creating poetry and creating art projects are all ways this can be done. Again, though, don’t insist.

• Try to avoid supporting numbing behaviors such increasing a diet of processed carbohydrates or oversleeping. That said, indulges here-and-there are usually harmless.

• Try to encourage regular fun activities that are (a) novel (b) social and (c) involve physical activity. This trifecta maximizes the release of mood lifting brain chemicals. Once a week or so is fine.

• If you share a spirituality with your child, suggest using it to process the grief. Praying together, going to services and sharing readings that are targeted for your child’s age can all be helpful.

• Try to keep as many of your rituals in place as possible. Rituals are islands of stability within the torrential currents of stress that our culture presents.

shutterstock_385425094• Make sure to spend one hour a week doing special time. You can get a summary of how to do special time by clicking here. To get the full description, read the first chapter of my parenting book. Remember that special time is not the same thing as quality time.

• If your child becomes unable to accomplish his major developmental tasks (e.g., academics, socializing), arrange for him to be evaluated by a child psychologist who is experienced in providing cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth. I would insist on an initial evaluation and not require your child to agree that it is a good idea.

When you share the loss with your child

• As difficult as it can be to help your child grieve, the situation is significantly more complicated when you are suffering from the same loss. Here’s the most important point: your healthy grieving should be a top priority. As an illustration, and quoting researchers Werner-Lin and Biank: “A child’s adjustment to the death of a parent is greatly influenced by the surviving parent’s ability to attend to his or her own grief-related needs.” For this reason, please see this blog post on tips for promoting your effective grieving.

Here are half a dozen tips for your shared grieving experience with your child:

• Let your child know that you are hurting too. The older your child, and the healthier she is from a psychological perspective, the more open you might choose to be about your pain. This can be especially challenging for men. When it comes to vulnerability, the research indicates that we men are often asked to be vulnerable, but when we are we can be less liked and even punished, sort of what women go through with being assertive (please see the body of work by Brene Brown to learn more about this).

• You might schedule times in advance to do some shared grieving.

• Memorializing projects can have more meaning if they are shared and displayed.

• Try not to be too upset with either of you for the vulnerabilities that result secondary to forgiveness as keyyour grieving. You may go through a period when you are grouchy or unmotivated or dour. Likewise, your child may go through a period when he is defiant or sullen or rejecting of your affection. These are often transient reactions; part of what helps them to not take root is to not overreacting to them.

• Seek parenting allies if you need a break. It can be hard for those of us who are proud or independent minded to reach out for help with parenting. But, ask yourself: how would you want a friend or loved one to think about the possibility of asking you for support if your roles were reversed?

• My final suggestion–that those of you who read this blog can see coming a mile away– is to seek out the services of a good family therapist if you are both suffering to the point that you can’t meet important goals in life. For referral ideas click here.

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