Children learn their coping mechanisms from the adults around them – they may not always hear what the adults are saying, but they will always watch what they do. If you find yourself panicking or struggling following a disaster or traumatic event, the chances are your child will too – you are their role model and they will copy your behaviour and actions.
The way we teach children how to cope with traumatic events in childhood sets a pattern for the rest of their lives. Life is not a series of happy moments and nor should it be or we would never know its preciousness. It is always interspersed with traumas, therefore it is important to keep our behaviours and routines as familiar as possible in the face of adversity to help give our children a feeling of safety.
Children understand loss – they see dead flies on a windowsill, a dead bird in the garden, even their heroes die in cartoons. Sometimes we do not give them enough credit for their capacity to understand. When there is a traumatic event in the family or that impacts your child, it is important that they can express how it makes them feel without feeling that they have to please you. Explain that when something bad happens, we don’t have the same reactions. Some people become quiet and reflective. Some panic. Some can’t stop crying. Whatever we are feeling when we suffer a trauma is as unique to us as our own fingerprint. Allow your child the freedom of self-expression. Any comparison, judgement or criticism will only create imaginary failings where there are none.
Trying to make a child feel anything other than their natural and instinctive reactions will put them into conflict with themselves and they will start to mistrust their instincts. We all feel things differently therefore what your child is feeling may be completely different to how you are feeling. Let this be. Children do not naturally question their reactions to things that happen, good or bad and are great at living in the present moment.
- Allowing them to have their own natural expressions will give them emotional confidence and an ability to process emotional events as they arise. We are not carbon copies of each other and we have a duty to our children to set an example to them.
- Create a safe space where you can share your feelings. You go first and be honest about how you feel. Let your child know that they can say whatever they want and you will accept whatever they say. Feedback in their own words to show that you have listened.
- Sometimes the reactions of younger children can be unpredictable and challenging behaviour can result. Sometimes children become clingy following a trauma. They may start to wet the bed or want to sleep with the light on. All these changes are quite natural as they try to process the event.
- Give them lots of love and reassurance. Explain in simple words that whatever they are feeling is their own unique and normal reaction. Above all, try not to make them feel that there is something wrong with them. Gently exploring any challenging behaviour gives them an opportunity to make an informed choice without the fear of being judged.
Even through your own grief, try to remain a constant source of love and safety for them. Be ready to answer their questions at all times and always answer honestly using words they will understand. Children can process information far more easily than adults if they are given the truth. By accepting and experiencing all life events as they occur, focusing on the good which so often follows a traumatic event – a sense of community; expressions of love; caring actions, we can teach our children to live fully and meaningfully processing emotional events practically as they arise.
We must also balance the scales – without the threats out there, there would be no value to life or understanding of how precious it is.
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ
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