Posted on: June 15, 2020
By Amanda Seyderhelm, certified child therapist and author of Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change
This short article provides guidance and tools to teachers that could be useful when you’re speaking with children who’ve experienced loss and grief. The biggest mistake we could make in helping children handle this crisis is to expect them to talk about how they feel directly because this is not how children express their feelings and this will drive their feelings deeper so they become more isolated and withdrawn.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re all experiencing some anxiety and discontent at this uncertain time, and children are no exception. They are going through the biggest change in their young lifetime, and their usual routines have been turned upside down. Their parents are likely at home, they won’t be going to school or seeing their friends, and potentially could have illness or death in the family, or in a friend’s family. Teachers are now tasked with not only teaching children but helping children to cope with grief, loss and change. No one has been prepared for this responsibility because we are all having to handle an unprecedented crisis.
How to recognise grief in children
It’s not always immediately obvious to adults when children are experiencing grief. Children often bottle up their feelings and pretend to be coping better than they really are. Making time and space for children to express their grief is the key here. At around age six, children begin to understand the permanence of death. Children between the ages of 6-12 may however still use ‘magical thinking’ to aid their understanding, such as considering a deceased person to be a ghost, spirit, angel or skeleton. They may complain of physical pains, such as a headache or a stomach ache, which are manifestations of the emotional pain they’re unable to articulate. Emotionally, children may experience feelings of guilt, shame, anger or anxiety, as well as worrying about their own mortality or that of other loved ones. This may show itself in behaviours such as developing a phobia of school, aggression or bullying, and withdrawal from their friends.
3 Tools and techniques to help a child cope
I have worked with children after loss for over nine years, as a certified child play therapist. Clearly, every child is different and every situation specific. However, I would like to offer you three child-centred tools and techniques that could be useful when you’re speaking with children who’ve experienced loss and grief.
1. Do not confront. There is an idea that encouraging children to face their feelings and share them directly is the best way to help them. While this may help adults, this does not work for children. This approach will feel confrontational to a child and could drive their feelings deeper within. They are likely to shut down, withdraw and feel isolated and alone.
2. Play to connect. Children’s natural language is play. When they play, they feel safe; they relax and they naturally share their world with you. Whether that play is a sandpit, the painting, or the puppets.
3. Use Story to Feel Safe. Children identify with story characters which gives them an indirect way to express their feelings without feeling shamed or embarrassed.
The Hero’s Journey
In particular, children between the ages of 4-10 often struggle to verbally express their grief. I believe the task of healing from bereavement is for children to find their voice, which may have been hidden underneath fear and confusion, and depending on the circumstances of their loss, shock. Finding their voice involves them making sense of their grief and loss, and the best way to do this is through metaphorical story, set within a hero’s journey framework. The hero’s journey approach therefore involves telling metaphorical stories to a child that they can relate to, for example when Dumbo is separated from his mother in the Disney film. Identifying with this character and experiencing their journey with them can be cathartic and allow the child to work through their emotions in a more helpful way. In the traditional hero’s journey, the main character finds a mentor who advises him to discover his own resources. In my stories, this mentor character is often a parent, friend or teacher. In doing this I hope to encourage this audience to engage with the children in the storytelling so that children emerge from the experience better equipped to draw on their own inner resources, as well as to seek help from those around them. This approach therefore allows children to receive adult messages in a way that’s natural to them.
Discover more tools and techniques to help children cope
If you enjoyed reading this article, Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change is an invaluable therapeutic tool for parents and teachers to support children experiencing change, grief or loss.