Photo Credit: Arwen Abendstern
Parents spend the first years of their children’s life trying to protect them from boo-boo’s and the ever-elusive boogeyman. As their children age, parents shift their energy to protecting their little ones from playground bullies, and later, the inevitable heartache that comes with teenage love. With time, all parents come to the difficult realization that it is impossible to protect their child from all things dangerous, sad or harmful.
What should a parent do when they are unable to protect their child from the emotional pain and sadness that occurs when tragedy strikes? Toledo area parents have been forced to answer this question in recent months, as our community has been rocked by the tragic deaths of several local teenagers.
As a mental health therapist, I’ve spent countless hours listening to how deeply children and teens can be affected when a friend or a student in their school dies. I also listen as parents express despair as they are looking for the “right” way to support their child. Even though there is no one right way of supporting a child or teen through a tragic loss, there are steps parents can take to be proactive.
- React calmly and rationally. Sudden or traumatic loss can propel schools and families into crisis mode. We have a natural tendency to act on emotion, rather than logic, which can be difficult to fight. When a traumatic loss occurs, an innate and intense need to protect happens. This instinct is a beautiful thing. However, when your child loses a friend or a school peer, it is important to be a calming source of comfort. Much like other life skills learned during childhood, children learn how to grieve by watching their parents. Parents can use this heartbreaking experience and turn it into a teaching moment.
- State the facts. If your child is young, it is important to calmly and logically explain what happened and why everyone is upset or sad. If this is your children’s first experience with loss, it may require you to provide them with basic information on death and dying. Avoid using euphemisms like, “He went to sleep and will never wake up,” as these can be confusing. Instead, parents should use clear and understandable language when explaining the death. It is OK to use the words “died” or “dead” and to give children age appropriate facts about what happened.
- Talk and Listen. Death and dying can be a complicated and uncomfortable topic of discussion for all of us. In the aftermath of a tragic loss, it is important to let your children know that it is OK to talk about the loss and share their true feelings. Ensuring that the line of communication will remain open will provides kids with a sense of security.Parents often tell me that their kids, especially teenagers, talk less about their own feelings and more about how their friends are coping with the tragic loss. This can be misleading to parents, sending a message that their child is “just fine.” Children, especially teenagers, strongly identify with their peer group. If you find that your children are talking more about their friends than themselves, it is important to be actively engaged in listening. If your children see that you are genuinely concerned about their friends, they may more readily share how the death is affecting them.
- Stay vigilant. Although children and teens are still learning how to navigate their way through life, I always stand amazed at how resilient they can be when faced with tragedy. Most will seek solace in family and friends and will learn to accept the loss. But, there are some children and teens who experience more complicated grief. Signs of complicated grief include major changes in mood or school performance or disturbances in sleep and eating habits. Parents are encouraged to seek help from a professional trained in the area of grief and loss if they notice extended or significant changes in their children’s daily functioning.
Parenting your child through a tragedy might be one of the greatest challenges you face. Remember, there is no one right way of approaching this very difficult situation. If nothing else, remain supportive and attentive, model healthy grief reactions and keep the door of communication wide open.
Raquel Wilson is a licensed independent social worker who provides mental health therapy at her private practice, Wellspring Counseling Services, in Sylvania Township. More information can be found at www.counselingatwellspring.com or by calling (419) 704-2938.