Caring adults try to protect their children from difficult events.
But still, that child has ears that overhear, eyes that read the faces
of adults around him. If people are sad, he knows it. If people are
angry, he knows that too.
What he doesn’t know--if no one tells him--is the whole story. In his
attempt to make sense of what is going on around him, he fills in the
fragments he has noticed with fantasized explanations of his own,
which, because he is a child, are more frightening than the truth.
From About Dying
by Sara Bonnett Stein
Helping children understand and cope with life’s difficult events such as divorce, illness and death, can be an uncertain and frightening undertaking for the adults in their lives. As a result, children are often left uninformed and ignorant at a time when what they need most is information and loving support from the important people in their lives. When children are sheltered from the facts about a traumatic event in their lives, they pick up bits and pieces of information. Mom may be crying a lot and is much less available to her children for interaction and attention. Or dad might be preoccupied and distant, not noticing or responding to his children as he normally would have. They may hear adults around them using words they do not understand but words that are filled with emotion and intensity. In an effort to make sense of it all, children will “fill in the blanks” and with their own ideas and images.
The problem with this is that children are operating with a perspective that is immature, egocentric and lacking in experience. While adults know that death is caused by an accident, a serious illness or something that clearly makes the body stop functioning, children may believe that it was their angry feelings and thoughts toward the dead person the day before that caused the death. Parents going through a divorce know that their child’s behavior had nothing to do with the breakdown of the marriage. Yet children, with their magical way of thinking, can honestly believe that it was the fighting they did with their brother or sister or their refusal to do as they were told, that caused dad to leave. What may seem ridiculous to us as adults, can make perfect sense to a child whose reasoning is undeveloped. Without a clear explanation given to them by an understanding and caring adult, children will very likely come up with an understanding of the traumatic event that could stay with them for years to come.
So when dealing with a child whose life has been touched by death, divorce, illness or anything else that can cause major disruption and pain, remember the following pointers:
- Give the child simple, clear facts, avoiding unnecessary details.
- Reassure the child that he is loved, will be taken care of and will not be abandoned. He may need this reassurance over and over again.
- Encourage the child to express his emotions but do not expect him to express himself in the same way you do.
- Be open to any questions the child may have.
- Tell the child there is nothing he could have done to cause the situation to happen or to prevent it from happening.
For more information on grieving children, teens, and families, please check out the sites below: