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Featured this Month:

Listening to Young Children’s Grief
Thursday, May 11, 2017 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
The grief responses of parentally bereaved pre-school aged children can be easy to overlook. They are very oriented to the present, see death as reversible and their separation distress is expressed in brief episodes. Affection and attentive caregiving go a long way for bereaved children. In previous articles we have talked about the importance of attunement of the caregiver to the child’s temperament, the necessity of routine, relaxation and play, and supporting the child’s continued development. Yet, even with the essential stable base, a grieving young child’s needs may be more complex than simply coping with absence. Sometimes, children struggle with grief challenges that are tied to their particular relationship with the deceased parent, and the nature of that relationship can influence their interpretation of the parent’s sudden absence.

As the young progress between infancy and preschool stages, the way the attachment relationship is experienced has implications for their bereavement. Shapiro (1994) explains that an infant experiences grief through the disruption in caregiving, the loss of familiar body-feel and scent of the caregiver. Toddlers experience bereavement as separation. They will continue to look for the missing parent. Preschoolers have a beginning notion of death associated with the lack of movement they have observed in dead bugs, birds and animals, but they can’t shift this notion to close attachment figures. Even with compassionate explanations that a deceased parent cannot return, the death of the parent is experienced as a frustrating, temporary absence. With only a beginning sense of what makes things happen or disappear, the young child may interpret the parent’s absence in self-blaming terms.

Young children view the world from a self-referential perspective. That is, they believe their actions directly influence events around them. They have only the self as a way of understanding causality. From age three to six, losses and scary events might be managed with magical thinking: “I can keep the monsters away as long as I sit up with Teddy.” “I dumped my oatmeal, and Daddy disappeared.” “I disobeyed, and Mommy is gone.” The absence of a vital attachment figure is understood in terms of the self.

In pre-school aged children, self-esteem is influenced by a sense of mastery; being able to make things work, achieving more body control and competence, and practicing skills, such as writing letters and words. Behaviorally, they are practicing cooperation and compliance, but also continuing to develop autonomy by saying no, showing resistance, even disobeying. So, when a young child loses a parent with whom such struggles were rising, a sensitive situation exists. Because an egocentric view of causality is normal for children up to age 7, the child who remembers conflict with the deceased parent may carry feelings of guilt regarding the death. And although this way of making sense of the loss may be pre-verbal, the child will express it with mood and behaviors.

What are some indications that a young, bereaved child is struggling in this way? As the surviving parent or caregiver, consider honestly the reflection that the child generally received about him/herself in interactions with the parent who died. How were the child’s autonomy-testing behaviors received by the parent? Was the relationship somewhat punitive? With which parent did the child’s non-compliant behaviors primarily occur? Are you aware of resilience in your child after a relationship conflict? Early childhood insecurities and frustrations are often met with self-blame, but children can be eased through these difficulties with caregiving that prioritizes and cultivates a message of self-worth. The child will gradually experience him/herself as affirmed and recognized when all feelings and preferences are acknowledged, with unacceptable behaviors receiving limits and alternative suggestions. This diminishes the power struggle and allows compassion and even good humor to redirect the child’s behavior. It preserves the message that the child is precious, and the emotional experience is validated. With patience, we may witness the child’s gradual competence in coping, and adaptation to age-appropriate expectations.

We typically see young children regress temporarily in their ability to manage frustration and handle transitions after a parental death. Tantrums, bedwetting, difficulty with self-soothing or not wanting to sleep alone are common after the loss of a primary attachment figure. Helping the child to understand that the behaviors are connected to the loss can minimize self-esteem issues and foster resilience.

Emotional stability can also be compromised in the acute phase of adult grief, and being able to recognize why and how our internal regulation is compromised can help with self-understanding. We must learn to allow ourselves a broad range of grief responses after a life-changing loss, and this allowance should also be made for children.

It is the role of a child therapist to interpret the behavioral grief responses of young children. Their development does not allow them to make rational sense of the loss, or free them from feeling responsible for the parent’s death, as it would an older child whose logic is sufficiently developed to explore thoughts for discussion. But young children’s behavior, play and art reveal much about the way they relate the loss to themselves. Together, the therapist, child and the surviving caregiver address the sense of responsibility for the loss that can burden a young child and be carried into adulthood. As the person matures, the early childhood reasoning about the loss is no longer remembered, yet self-esteem problems can develop. Any death, but especially sudden death and suicide, will be a challenge to integrate without confusion about responsibility, and the message of disillusionment that is a legacy of suicide. A child therapist joins with surviving parents to maintain development and foster emotional expression and resilience in grieving young children.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth values the uniqueness of each child’s development and the experiences that influence their loss narrative. Fortunately, what children tell themselves regarding the death changes with time, and the way a therapist listens to this can encourage healing while the child learns to grow with life-changing loss.

Shapiro, E. R. (1994). Grief as a family process: A devlopmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.


Archives:

Listening to Young Children’s Grief
Thursday, May 11, 2017 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
The grief responses of parentally bereaved pre-school aged children can be easy to overlook. They are very oriented to the present, see death as reversible and their separation distress is expressed in brief episodes. Affection and attentive caregiving go a long way for bereaved children. In previous articles we have talked about the importance of attunement of the caregiver to the child’s temperament, the necessity of routine, relaxation and play, and supporting the child’s continued development. Yet, even with the essential stable base, a grieving young child’s needs may be more complex than simply coping with absence. Sometimes, children struggle with grief challenges that are tied to their particular relationship with the deceased parent, and the nature of that relationship can influence their interpretation of the parent’s sudden absence.

As the young progress between infancy and preschool stages, the way the attachment relationship is experienced has implications for their bereavement. Shapiro (1994) explains that an infant experiences grief through the disruption in caregiving, the loss of familiar body-feel and scent of the caregiver. Toddlers experience bereavement as separation. They will continue to look for the missing parent. Preschoolers have a beginning notion of death associated with the lack of movement they have observed in dead bugs, birds and animals, but they can’t shift this notion to close attachment figures. Even with compassionate explanations that a deceased parent cannot return, the death of the parent is experienced as a frustrating, temporary absence. With only a beginning sense of what makes things happen or disappear, the young child may interpret the parent’s absence in self-blaming terms.

Young children view the world from a self-referential perspective. That is, they believe their actions directly influence events around them. They have only the self as a way of understanding causality. From age three to six, losses and scary events might be managed with magical thinking: “I can keep the monsters away as long as I sit up with Teddy.” “I dumped my oatmeal, and Daddy disappeared.” “I disobeyed, and Mommy is gone.” The absence of a vital attachment figure is understood in terms of the self.

In pre-school aged children, self-esteem is influenced by a sense of mastery; being able to make things work, achieving more body control and competence, and practicing skills, such as writing letters and words. Behaviorally, they are practicing cooperation and compliance, but also continuing to develop autonomy by saying no, showing resistance, even disobeying. So, when a young child loses a parent with whom such struggles were rising, a sensitive situation exists. Because an egocentric view of causality is normal for children up to age 7, the child who remembers conflict with the deceased parent may carry feelings of guilt regarding the death. And although this way of making sense of the loss may be pre-verbal, the child will express it with mood and behaviors.

What are some indications that a young, bereaved child is struggling in this way? As the surviving parent or caregiver, consider honestly the reflection that the child generally received about him/herself in interactions with the parent who died. How were the child’s autonomy-testing behaviors received by the parent? Was the relationship somewhat punitive? With which parent did the child’s non-compliant behaviors primarily occur? Are you aware of resilience in your child after a relationship conflict? Early childhood insecurities and frustrations are often met with self-blame, but children can be eased through these difficulties with caregiving that prioritizes and cultivates a message of self-worth. The child will gradually experience him/herself as affirmed and recognized when all feelings and preferences are acknowledged, with unacceptable behaviors receiving limits and alternative suggestions. This diminishes the power struggle and allows compassion and even good humor to redirect the child’s behavior. It preserves the message that the child is precious, and the emotional experience is validated. With patience, we may witness the child’s gradual competence in coping, and adaptation to age-appropriate expectations.

We typically see young children regress temporarily in their ability to manage frustration and handle transitions after a parental death. Tantrums, bedwetting, difficulty with self-soothing or not wanting to sleep alone are common after the loss of a primary attachment figure. Helping the child to understand that the behaviors are connected to the loss can minimize self-esteem issues and foster resilience.

Emotional stability can also be compromised in the acute phase of adult grief, and being able to recognize why and how our internal regulation is compromised can help with self-understanding. We must learn to allow ourselves a broad range of grief responses after a life-changing loss, and this allowance should also be made for children.

It is the role of a child therapist to interpret the behavioral grief responses of young children. Their development does not allow them to make rational sense of the loss, or free them from feeling responsible for the parent’s death, as it would an older child whose logic is sufficiently developed to explore thoughts for discussion. But young children’s behavior, play and art reveal much about the way they relate the loss to themselves. Together, the therapist, child and the surviving caregiver address the sense of responsibility for the loss that can burden a young child and be carried into adulthood. As the person matures, the early childhood reasoning about the loss is no longer remembered, yet self-esteem problems can develop. Any death, but especially sudden death and suicide, will be a challenge to integrate without confusion about responsibility, and the message of disillusionment that is a legacy of suicide. A child therapist joins with surviving parents to maintain development and foster emotional expression and resilience in grieving young children.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth values the uniqueness of each child’s development and the experiences that influence their loss narrative. Fortunately, what children tell themselves regarding the death changes with time, and the way a therapist listens to this can encourage healing while the child learns to grow with life-changing loss.

Shapiro, E. R. (1994). Grief as a family process: A devlopmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.