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Featured this Month:

School Age Children and their Grief Processes
Friday, May 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Our LOSS children’s program receives calls from parents who previously had no need to consider counseling services for their school age children.   Parents may have been challenged to keep up with the flourishing child’s social schedule, tutor, team sports, music lessons,… but had no reason to consider that their child’s rapid developmental progress might be impacted by a profound loss, such as suicide.  In fact, the characteristic behaviors of this resourceful stage that celebrates competence and increased independence seem to argue that loss and grief will not disrupt normal life.  The developmental tasks for children between ages seven and twelve are primarily operational: that is, learning how to do things well and cultivating special interests. Much of their social life revolves around skills and practice.  They also use less magical thinking and take on more logical and concrete reasoning.  While preschool children render drawings that are fantastic and expressionistic, the school age child, now about skills mastery, takes satisfaction in drawings that are as realistic and as accurate as possible, and often stereotyped (Shapiro, 1994, p.105).  

Of course, there is a considerable range for the developed abilities of children between seven and twelve, but the trajectory of this developmental period is to face outward, to take on the world by doing.  They are coming in to some enhanced abilities that might allow them to engage with a grief process, but developmental needs may compete with the inner-focused work of grief.  The language and cognitive abilities that are evident during this developmental phase may allow them to understand the permanency of death and the idea of emotional pain and depression, as well as the notion that a person can stop their own body from working.  They can ask questions and make some sort of interpretation about a suicide.  They can identify feelings and express them verbally, in writing and drawing, as well as make connections between feelings and behavior.  Children in this age range are likely to hold vivid memories of things the deceased person said, their behaviors, and specific details about the character and personality of the person who died.  Their minds may be quick to make connections and form opinions, while the developmental agenda can function to help or inhibit the grief process, especially regarding those deaths that were sudden or violent, like suicide.     

The loss experiences of children in this group are often misunderstood as a result of their newly acquired skills and way of being in the world.  Between childhood and adolescence, their cognitive distortions are not as obvious to us as those of preschoolers, but it is important to check their assumptions as they practice making sense of things.  Ego development for this age permits the use of more sophisticated psychological defenses to guard against overwhelming feelings of loss. They may even appear indifferent after the traumatic loss of a sibling or parent, and may feel that if they don’t speak about their devastated feelings and disorientation that “life will not be quite so intensely, unremittingly, painfully the way it truly is” (p.106).  In effect, school age children are vulnerable as a result of the misleading signals they may give related to apparent competency and resilience.   We might see avoidant behaviors, repressed feelings, masked emotions and reliance on the world of school to cling to a sense of normalcy.  During this developmental period they want to be ordinary more than anything in life.

Ester Shapiro, the family grief specialist who so often informs the knowledge base for our articles, cautions that in the context of the disruption families experience following a death, there is a danger that the avoidance and repression that comes naturally to the school aged child will be reinforced at a time when caregivers have a minimum of emotional energy and attention to give.  Children who make efforts to stay under the radar are actually at risk for isolation, and the cognitive distortions that they may form about themselves in relationship to the loss can go unchallenged.  Because school age children are capable of self-questioning, and their thinking is largely concrete, or literal, they can form destructive beliefs about their own powers or responsibilities for the loved one’s death, or associate causality between their anger and aggression with the death.  And during a period when mastery over self and the development of skills are defining motivations, the school aged child may experience “the ultimate powerlessness involved in abandonment by death” as a depressive impact on self-esteem (p. 111).

With awareness around the school aged child’s misleading behaviors that are directed toward the appearance of normalcy, we can respect developmental needs and psychological defenses that may help to invoke a balanced grief response.   Olivia, a ten year old who regularly attended the children’s program, appeared driven to complete craft-like grief activities after the suicide of her father.  This fit with her excellence in approach to school, scouting, gymnastics and piano. The child’s mother and counselor discussed the devotion with which she directed her skills to honor and remember her beloved father. Using fewer words in the beginning of her grief care, this very alert child oriented herself to her loss in the ways she knew best.  Gradually, with creativity and small motor-skills the apparent goal of the sessions, she found ways to disclose and explore her traumatic loss, to learn about her father’s depression, to understand the special kinship she enjoyed with him around sports and, with the creation of a family tree, to appreciate a larger sense of herself in relationship to her parents and two earlier generations, as well as her future.  The child’s developing skill set supported a safe exploration of all that was frightening, and her growing collection of self-made memorabilia helped her to keep an internalized sense of her father available as she needed him on a daily basis.  She now seems to know how she must have been understood and cherished by her father; she listens attentively to stories about other parentally bereaved children and identifies with the heroic challenges of suicide survivorship.

Developmental stage is a critical factor in how children grieve profound loss.  Let us meet them on the developmental pathway to help them use their emerging gifts for full expression of the grief that we never expected for those so young.  
 
Shapiro, E. R. (1994). Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.                             
    



Archives:

School Age Children and their Grief Processes
Friday, May 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Our LOSS children’s program receives calls from parents who previously had no need to consider counseling services for their school age children.   Parents may have been challenged to keep up with the flourishing child’s social schedule, tutor, team sports, music lessons,… but had no reason to consider that their child’s rapid developmental progress might be impacted by a profound loss, such as suicide.  In fact, the characteristic behaviors of this resourceful stage that celebrates competence and increased independence seem to argue that loss and grief will not disrupt normal life.  The developmental tasks for children between ages seven and twelve are primarily operational: that is, learning how to do things well and cultivating special interests. Much of their social life revolves around skills and practice.  They also use less magical thinking and take on more logical and concrete reasoning.  While preschool children render drawings that are fantastic and expressionistic, the school age child, now about skills mastery, takes satisfaction in drawings that are as realistic and as accurate as possible, and often stereotyped (Shapiro, 1994, p.105).  

Of course, there is a considerable range for the developed abilities of children between seven and twelve, but the trajectory of this developmental period is to face outward, to take on the world by doing.  They are coming in to some enhanced abilities that might allow them to engage with a grief process, but developmental needs may compete with the inner-focused work of grief.  The language and cognitive abilities that are evident during this developmental phase may allow them to understand the permanency of death and the idea of emotional pain and depression, as well as the notion that a person can stop their own body from working.  They can ask questions and make some sort of interpretation about a suicide.  They can identify feelings and express them verbally, in writing and drawing, as well as make connections between feelings and behavior.  Children in this age range are likely to hold vivid memories of things the deceased person said, their behaviors, and specific details about the character and personality of the person who died.  Their minds may be quick to make connections and form opinions, while the developmental agenda can function to help or inhibit the grief process, especially regarding those deaths that were sudden or violent, like suicide.     

The loss experiences of children in this group are often misunderstood as a result of their newly acquired skills and way of being in the world.  Between childhood and adolescence, their cognitive distortions are not as obvious to us as those of preschoolers, but it is important to check their assumptions as they practice making sense of things.  Ego development for this age permits the use of more sophisticated psychological defenses to guard against overwhelming feelings of loss. They may even appear indifferent after the traumatic loss of a sibling or parent, and may feel that if they don’t speak about their devastated feelings and disorientation that “life will not be quite so intensely, unremittingly, painfully the way it truly is” (p.106).  In effect, school age children are vulnerable as a result of the misleading signals they may give related to apparent competency and resilience.   We might see avoidant behaviors, repressed feelings, masked emotions and reliance on the world of school to cling to a sense of normalcy.  During this developmental period they want to be ordinary more than anything in life.

Ester Shapiro, the family grief specialist who so often informs the knowledge base for our articles, cautions that in the context of the disruption families experience following a death, there is a danger that the avoidance and repression that comes naturally to the school aged child will be reinforced at a time when caregivers have a minimum of emotional energy and attention to give.  Children who make efforts to stay under the radar are actually at risk for isolation, and the cognitive distortions that they may form about themselves in relationship to the loss can go unchallenged.  Because school age children are capable of self-questioning, and their thinking is largely concrete, or literal, they can form destructive beliefs about their own powers or responsibilities for the loved one’s death, or associate causality between their anger and aggression with the death.  And during a period when mastery over self and the development of skills are defining motivations, the school aged child may experience “the ultimate powerlessness involved in abandonment by death” as a depressive impact on self-esteem (p. 111).

With awareness around the school aged child’s misleading behaviors that are directed toward the appearance of normalcy, we can respect developmental needs and psychological defenses that may help to invoke a balanced grief response.   Olivia, a ten year old who regularly attended the children’s program, appeared driven to complete craft-like grief activities after the suicide of her father.  This fit with her excellence in approach to school, scouting, gymnastics and piano. The child’s mother and counselor discussed the devotion with which she directed her skills to honor and remember her beloved father. Using fewer words in the beginning of her grief care, this very alert child oriented herself to her loss in the ways she knew best.  Gradually, with creativity and small motor-skills the apparent goal of the sessions, she found ways to disclose and explore her traumatic loss, to learn about her father’s depression, to understand the special kinship she enjoyed with him around sports and, with the creation of a family tree, to appreciate a larger sense of herself in relationship to her parents and two earlier generations, as well as her future.  The child’s developing skill set supported a safe exploration of all that was frightening, and her growing collection of self-made memorabilia helped her to keep an internalized sense of her father available as she needed him on a daily basis.  She now seems to know how she must have been understood and cherished by her father; she listens attentively to stories about other parentally bereaved children and identifies with the heroic challenges of suicide survivorship.

Developmental stage is a critical factor in how children grieve profound loss.  Let us meet them on the developmental pathway to help them use their emerging gifts for full expression of the grief that we never expected for those so young.  
 
Shapiro, E. R. (1994). Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.