Supporting a Grieving Child: The Importance of Modeling
Readers with children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, or any child-age friend or family member, I want you to envision the following scenario:
You are flipping through the television channels with your young friend sitting nearby. The child is playing but he or she looks up whenever something attention grabbing appears on the tv.
In your channel surfing, you stop absentmindedly on a program that looks interesting when all of a sudden the character on the screen starts swearing and engaging in acts of violence towards innocent people (you can substitute any R rated scenario you wish). You realize the scene has caught the nearby child’s attention and so you quickly flip the channel to anything but the disaster you had just been watching.
You look at the child to gauge their reaction and are relieved to see they appear relatively unaffected. You decide you’d rather not bring what they just saw back up because it might make things worse and you might not know how to answer their questions. You resolve that from now on when the kiddos are around you will keep your channel surfing within the bounds of family-friendly channels.
Any adult who’s known and loved a child also knows what it’s like to try and protect these small and vulnerable creatures. The world is littered with events and experiences you’d rather them not be exposed to. You’d sacrifice a great deal to keep them out of harms way and to preserve their sweet innocence for as long as possible. It makes sense for adults to act in this way, especially parental units, because it’s their job to get these kids through to adulthood relatively unscathed. Protecting a child is adaptive behavior.
The trouble is that you can’t control everything – you all know this better than anyone. Despite your best efforts to keep everyone safe, healthy, and happy, life sometimes has other ideas. Tragedy happens, and when it does the adult instinct is often to lessen exposure and minimize damage by turning the metaphorical channel.
But here’s the problem, if you turn the channel in the middle of the calamity and without subsequent discussion, the child never gets to see how the heroes and everyday people endure, cope, and put themselves back together. They are left with a hellish scene playing in their head and, in the absence of guidance and support, they have little idea how to deal with the tornado of emotion and confusion felt inside. As an adult in that child’s life, you are an important piece in helping the child know what to do next. This is true for a million reasons, but today I want to focus on one that is especially important.
I’m teaching Psych 101 right now and so I’ve been taking a walk down memory lane, relearning all the concepts I simply take for granted after 100 years of schooling. There is a concept called Social Learning Theory proposed by Albert Bandura in the 70’s which is so simple I think it almost goes without saying, and yet it doesn’t go without saying.
Social learning is the (well researched) mode of learning that occurs simply by observing the actions and behaviors of others. When we learn by watching or imitating others, we are engaging in what is called observational learning or modeling. This type of learning can happen at any time in a person’s life, but it is most common in childhood as kids learn to navigate the world by paying attention to the behavior of their peers and trusted adults. Social learning is especially important in a child’s socialization because they learn how to behave in response to others.
As a trusted adult, you’re behavior is a stimuli for modeling. Additionally, it is more likely for your behavior to be imitated if:
- You are perceived as warm and nurturing
- You reward the child for their behavior in any way (remember, rewards are often emotional)
- You are a person in a position of authority
- You are the same sex
- The situation is confusing, ambiguous or unfamiliar.
Check, check, check, and check.
The way you handle grief (yours and the child’s) can make such a difference – no pressure. Here’s the problem, we’ve established that after a child experiences the death of a loved one you may instinctively feel the best thing you can do is shield them from difficult emotion or triggers that remind them of the death and/or trauma. If you are also grieving the same loss, this may mean you feel you need to mask your grief in front of the child or that you shouldn’t speak openly about your loved one. These instincts might seem to make sense, but in this instance they are far from beneficial. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Protecting a child from difficult emotions after they’ve experienced the death of someone they love is impossible:
This one is out of your control, they will experience tough emotions. Hiding your own grief or discouraging sadness, anger, frustration or other “negative” emotions will likely cause more confusion for the child. Imagine how isolating it would be to think the emotions you feel so strongly are unacceptable, abnormal, or wrong.
2. The child might learn maladaptive coping patters like avoidance are the correct choice:
We wrote a pretty comprehensive post on the ways in which habitual avoidance can complicate grief. Long story short, it is beneficial for children to learn how to tolerate and cope with their emotions as opposed to learning how to avoid them.
3. The child might learn that emotions and memories are to be feared:
When a person feels that certain emotions and emotional expression are unacceptable or should be avoided, the implicit message is that these emotions are bad. Although certain memories and emotions can cause a certain amount of distress, it’s important for people to learn they can be tolerated. In many ways, experiencing a full range of emotions can be important in leading a full and meaningful life.
4. The child might feel discouraged from continuing their bond with their loved one:
An important part of grief is finding ways to continue a relationship with the person who has died even though they are no longer fully present. We have written quite a bit on continuing bonds with deceased loved ones and we believe this is an important part of grieving.
When talking about a deceased loved one is discouraged or avoided, the child is denied the opportunity to continue their bond with that loved one within the familial context. They may find ways to continue their bond on their own, but given the fact that the child is young, you will always be an important source of memories and information about the person who has died.
We have written quite a lot about supporting a grieving child and parenting while grieving so I won’t make a long post longer by telling you how to be a good model. Instead I will suggest three simple things:
1. Grieve openly and in your way:
Perhaps there will be moments of anger and despair that you would prefer to experience privately or amongst adults. Generally speaking, though, being open about your own grief will provide the child with reassurance that they are not alone and that it is acceptable to feel all sorts of emotions in response to their loss.
Be willing to say when you’re sad, be willing to talk about the death, be open to discussing the hard parts, and be honest when you answer the child’s questions. By maintaining an authentic, warm, and supportive dialogue, you are setting the stage to be able to discuss grief as it changes and shifts in the days, weeks, and years to come.
2. Help the child find outlets for their grief:
It’s impossible to be everything to everyone, especially when your grieving. Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. That being the case, you may not feel ready to provide the child with certain types of support. Maybe they have questions about the death or perhaps they want to talk about memories that you don’t feel ready to discuss – if this is the case, help them find another trusted adult or peer who can support them in these ways. Perhaps you decide to connect them with an aunt, uncle or old friend or perhaps you decide to reach out to a grief center, grief camp, or counselor; regardless, try and provide them what they need to continue working through their grief.
3. Make your loved one a part of every day family life:
Your loved one has died, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still an important part of you and your family. Continue to find ways to talk about your loved one and to make them a part of your life. Create an environment where it isn’t a big deal to speak of your loved one, share memories, ask questions, or say their name.
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