As parents, we want to do everything possible to teach our children the tools they will need to have a happy and successful life. We make sure that they understand to look both directions when crossing a street. We tell them not to touch the stove when it is hot. We warn them about “stranger danger.” In most situations, we usually put their needs before our own.
There is one area of instruction where parents generally fail in giving their children a highly needed survival skill. Parents rarely teach their children to successfully deal with emotional loss of any kind. In all likelihood, our parents never provided us with this information either, which is why we do not think to pass it on to our children.
Think about this for a moment. Did your parents ever sit you down and explain how to effectively deal with the grief caused by loss? Rather than provide formal instruction on this, they most likely passed on what they thought was useful information in the moment they felt it was needed. When you cried, they probably told you not to cry and gave you logical reasons not to feel sad. The problem was that despite those logical reasons, you still felt sad, but now tried to suppress the outward expression of those feelings. Sadness and grief are emotions and emotions are not logical.
One of the reasons we can fail to give them the best information is that as adults, we fail to look at their losses from a child’s perspective. What they see as a major loss may appear trivial to us. I heard a comedian on the radio today give another example of how parents fail to look at things through a child’s eyes. He was out one day and saw a child with a helium filled balloon. The child lost her grip on the string and the balloon floated away. When she cried, her parents told her not to feel bad and they would get her a new one. She was still upset because she wanted that balloon. The comedian said, “what if the father’s wallet floated away? Would the dad feel better if someone suggested that he should not feel sad and just get a new one? Probably not!” Again, it is all a matter of perspective.
What most people do not realize is that children absorb 75% of the tools that they will likely use for the rest of their lives in dealing with any situation by the time they are two to three years old. Even before they have strong verbal skills, they are learning. While we may see their early losses as inconsequential and tell them not to feel bad, they learn that this is the way to deal with all loss. I am sure that you have heard an adult offer this same suggestion to another adult who has experienced a major emotional loss in their life. Again, they probably chased this advice with logical reasons why that person should not feel bad. This may have even happened to you! Did their logic make you feel any better? Again, probably not.
Rather than passing on to your children the same less than helpful information you may have learned, you can do better. Instead of telling your child not to feel bad, that a loss can be replaced, that they need to be strong and keep busy, and that grief just takes time, you can help them by deveolping some better communication tools. Here are 6 parenting tips that will help your children for a lifetime!
1. Listen with your heart and not your head. Allow your child to express all of their emotions without judgement, criticism, or analysis. You need to remember that while this loss may not seem that dramatic to you, it is to your child. Offering him or her reasons not to feel sad will not make your child really feel any better. In that moment, they do not need to be judged!
2. Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual. Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong, because he or she will automatically say “nothing.” Your child does not understand that you are practicing a new skill set with them and remember that the last time they felt sad, you gave them logical reasons not to feel that way.
3. You are the adult and you need to go first! Tell the truth about your own grief. This will make it safe for your child to open up as well. If you were not directly affected by the loss that has affected your child, remember and tell them of a similar or parallel loss in your life. You need to do this without any comparisons! This is not a competition over who should be hurting the most, but rather an opportunity to create a chance for your child to feel safe in sharing his or her feelings.
4. Remember that each of your children are unique and each has a unique relationship to the loss event. They will not respond the same way. You need to let them know that this is normal and that one is not right in his or her response and the other wrong.
5. Be patient. Don’t force them to talk. It may take a little time for them to feel comfortable to your new approach to helping them express their feelings. Again, they will still be expecting you to tell them why they should not feel bad.
6. Never say “Don’t feel sad” or “don’t feel scared.” Sadness and fear are the two most normal feelings attached to loss of any kind. They are part of being human. Rather than say these things, offer them a comforting hug.
These are just six first steps that you can take in better assisting your children to cope with loss, but they are an important start. Please keep in mind that loss is a part of life and as a parent, you can teach your children positive tools to successfully deal with that pain in their hearts. You will find a complete explanation of how to do this in the book “When Children Grieve.” This is not a book to just give to your children, but rather a guide to help you better communicate with them. It contains information on communicating not only with young children, but pre-teens and teenagers as well. No matter the age of your child, it can help you better communicate on emotional issues with your children.
As parents, we try to protect our children from having to deal with unpleasant situations. What we often forget is that the ability to successfully deal with emotional sadness is a survival skill that they will need throughout their lives. Giving them this set of tools can be one of the greatest gifts that you will ever give them!