In my work as a play therapist in a children's hospital and a preschool teacher at Purdue, Bowling Green State University, and Texas Tech University, I have supported children as they experienced the emotional turbulance involving the death of friends and family members, the loss of friends, and separation from parents.
Our guidance through the four passages with children is significantly affected by their age. Because our model for helping is primarily a rational-emotive approach, we have to adjust to a child's limitations in cognitive functioning. For an excellent summary of children's concepts and beliefs about loss, the difficult emotions they face, and possible behaviors from birth through adolescence, see Navigating Children's Grief: How to Help Following a Death (clicking will open a new browserwindow) by Mary M. Lyles.
How do we help children move through the passages of sadness?
When any of us misinterpret or distort our experience, our emotions spin out of control . Children are especially vulnerable to emotional highjacking because of their limited perspective and how quickly they fill their gaps in knowledge with mistaken ideas. Our behavior and espectations in response to their sadness has to be developmentally appropriate.
Children's response to loss can be sudden and dramatic. A lost teddy bear can feel like the end of the world to a child. The death of a loved one can be bewildering. A child, for example, may demand that the parent or grandparent return and experience their death as a personal rejection. A preschool child who cries, "I want mamma come home!" is not being metaphorical. Lacking an understanding of the permanency of death, she believes her mother can return if she wants to after going somewhere else. At the Threshold, we have to be patient and accepting. There is no way to "force" a child to see the "truth."
At Stabilize, skills like listen for truth, not facts, paraphrase meaning, and reflect feelings are especially important. A consistent, accepting, and loving response can gradually lead a child to a more balanced emotional composure. Depending on the depth of the loss, this can take a considerable amout of time. Patience is critical. We have to be especially alert to mistaken ideas and calmly and gently reveal the truth.
Before adolescence, children don't have the maturity to Mobilize themselves. Before this time, we have to accept that Stabilize is probably the best we can do for children in their journey through sadness and grief. Teenagers, however, can achieve success at the Mobilize phase with the support of family, friends, and teachers who help them see the loss as a challenge that can inspire action.
Arriving at Transformation can take longer with adolescents than with adults. This achievement may be most visible when a child leaves home to begin life as an adult.
If you are a parent or grandparent of a child who has faced sadness and grief, I'd love to hear any of your comments or insights about A Course on Helping. I would like to add your insights to this list.