It’s not unusual for adults who are grieving to make their suffering worse. Many times this happens without their realizing it. They hurt and they want the pain to stop, so they react to the pain and make wrong choices. If adults can get stuck in their grief and troubling their own troubles, can children do the same? They can.
This article will help you understand that the coping strategies kids use to deal with the pain of grief can actually hurt them.
Children may make things worse for themselves
Some children will develop coping strategies that might make the suffering worse and in the long run end up causing them harm. When children’s pastors and church leaders understand these issues, we can combat the problem and help children process their grief in a healthy and viable manner.
Coping strategies children might use that could end up harming them
- In order to protect himself, a child might pull away from the remaining parent and other loved ones. If the child feels like the death of the parent was his fault, he may emotionally pull away from the others. In the child’s immature mind, he is protecting the other people. The child can’t begin to imagine losing the other parent, so he rationalizes that if he pulls away, he will be making it possible for the other parent to live.
- If the child tends to look like or act like the loved one who died, he may begin to isolate himself from the remaining loved ones. He may have overheard the parent who is living make a comment about how much she is hurting right now and how every time she looks at her child, it reminds her of her loved one.
- Many times children will sabotage the very relationships needed to help them process their grief. Even though children need emotionally healthy relationships to survive the suffering they feel, many will unconsciously pull away. Children have little experience in developing relationships, and they do not have the critical thinking skills that alert them to the fact that their important relationships can help them get through the grieving process.
- Another coping skill children use that can end up harming them long-term is to push away their emotional connections to the deceased person. Some children think if they just forget that person who died, things will be okay. Sometimes they try to get rid of anything that reminds them of their loved one. If a child doesn’t process his grief and continue to have an emotional connection to his loved one, his mind learns that when someone hurts him, he should just shut that person out. This thinking can set the child up to fail in any possible long-term relationship. Also, if it is a parent he is trying to disconnect from and he succeeds, then he has no role model to help him parent his own children.
- Some children will pull away from God. They become angry at a God who would allow their loved one to die. This will affect their developing an intimate and personal relationship with God in the future. If they pull away from God as children, then they may never come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.
Adults can make things worse too
Here are some things parents or other adults might do that actually make the situation worse for a child who is suffering in grief.
- Allowing the child to “stuff his grief,” that is, to not process it but hold it internally.
- Not allowing the child to talk about the death or about the deceased person.
- Being punitive with the child when he acts out or misbehaves.
- Trying to constantly “happy up” the child. In other words, the parent or other adults are always telling the child to be happy—“Turn the frown upside down and smile”—when the child has a right to be sad.
- Allowing the child to act as if nothing is wrong, going about life as if nothing has happened.
- Allowing or causing the child to take on the role of acting like an adult/parent to other kids in the family. The child never has an opportunity to suffer through his own grief.
Any one of the above can hinder children in their grieving. Children need to feel their grief and deal with the hurt they feel because of the death of their loved one. Holding their grief inside, not being allowed to talk about the loved one, or not being allowed to be sad can cause a child to become depressed. When a child who is grieving acts out, it’s important for the adults in the child’s life to realize he is reacting to his situation. Instead of punishing the child, help him understand why he is misbehaving. Sometimes all the child needs is someone to comfort and understand him.
Helping children move through their grief in a healthy manner
Church leaders, children’s ministers, and volunteers can provide many healthy options for children who are grieving. Here are a few tips.
- Help children put a name to their feelings. Overwhelming emotions can be scary to a young child. When a child can name a feeling, he can claim the feeling and then tame that feeling. Viewing pictures representing various feelings or describing the child’s actions and adding a label to the feelings can be one way to accomplish this.
- Encourage the child to talk about the loved one who has died.
- Call it what it is—a death. Don’t use terms that are confusing to the child, such as gone to sleep, living in heaven now, or gone away for a long time.
- Encourage the adults in the child’s life to keep the door of communication open. Keep talking and sharing with the child.
- Provide ways the child can stay connected emotionally to the loved one. For instance, if it was the mother who died, for Mother’s Day, instead of ignoring that child, provide a special way the child can honor his mother—perhaps through a memory card or a special place in the church to place a flower in her honor.
- When the child acts out or misbehaves, have patience with the child. Remember, the child is hurting and may not know how to express that hurt. The misbehavior becomes the child’s voice. Take the child aside and perhaps provide a break from the rest of the group for a few moments.
- Give children the opportunity to talk about other things. Sometimes little kids just need to share for a few minutes each week. These moments don’t necessarily need to be times they talk about the deceased but can be times they are able to share about their day-to-day lives. This helps them move forward and away from crippling grief. Kids need to feel normal and like other kids in the group.
- Provide Scripture cards each week the child can take home and keep close to him.
- Pray for and with the child.
- Encourage the adults in the child’s life to set and keep routines. Routines and boundaries help a child feel safe and secure.
- Encourage the adults to keep old traditions but to gradually develop new traditions also.
Overwhelming emotions make a child’s suffering worse. We have to help the children grieve and handle those uncomfortable feelings when they are young, so when they do become adults they won’t make their own troubles worse in the adult world. We must take responsibility as church leaders to bring God’s hope and His love into their young lives.