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Crisis Support Strategies

Supporting Your Children through Crisis or Grieving

 

The following are some strategies parents may wish to consider in supporting children through a challenging time of crisis or grieving:


Be yourself – Demonstrate your natural concern calmly and in your own words.


Be available – Spend time with your child. Attempt to distract your child by reading, walking, going to a movie, etc.


Listen – Let your child express his/her thoughts, concerns, feelings, and perceptions in a nonjudgmental, emotionally safe environment.


Explain – Talk about what you know in short, truthful statements. Don’t be afraid to admit that you do not have all the answers.


Do not speculate.


Develop resiliency – Your child will look to you for reassurance. Do not convey your own feelings of hopelessness, but rather let your child know that they will get through this difficult period.


Provide comfort – Physical and verbal comforts are great healers.


Attend to physical manifestations of trauma - Children will often complain of headaches, stomach aches, backaches, etc. Monitor physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, anxiety, sleep disturbance, etc. and determine whether medical intervention is required.


Maintain regular routines – As much as possible, attempt to provide normalcy to your child.  Humans are creatures of habit and derive comfort from regular routines.


Monitor media exposure – Do not overexpose your child to media reports (especially preschool and elementary age children).


Seek additional support – When appropriate, your child should be directed to community support agencies.


Contact your child’s school if you think extra help is needed.



Considerations When Talking with Children About Death

 

A General Guide for Understanding Developmental Stages


Preschool children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. In stories they read or watch characters will often suddenly rise up alive again after being totally destroyed. It’s not surprising they don’t understand, yet it is appropriate for their age level to think this way.


Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final. They tend to not relate it to themselves and consider the idea that they can escape it. They may associate images with death, such as a skeleton. Some children have nightmares about them.


From nine through to adolescence, children to begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die some day

 

Talking About Death With Preschoolers or Young Children

 

Many people feel challenged when approaching the subject of death to preschoolers and young children. They in particular need brief and simple explanations. Using concrete and familiar examples may help. For example, death may be made more clear by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions – when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when dogs die they do not bark or run anymore; dead flowers do not grow or bloom any more.

 

Children learn through repetition so they may need to go over this quite a few times. A child may immediately ask more questions, others may be silent, then wish to revisit the subject again later. Children sometimes get confused with what they hear so it is important you check their understanding by revisiting the subject at appropriate times.

As time passes and children have new experiences, they will need further explanations and sharing of ideas and thoughts.

 

It may take time for a child to comprehend fully the ramifications of death and its emotional implications. A child who knows that Uncle Tom has died may still ask why Aunt Julie is crying. The child needs an answer. “Aunt Julie is crying because she is sad that Uncle Tom has died. She misses him very much. We all feel sad when someone we care about dies.”

There are also moments when we have trouble “understanding” what children are asking us. A question that may seem dreadfully thoughtless to an adult may be a child’s request for reassurance. For instance, a question such as, “When will you die?” needs to be heard with the realization that the young child perceives death as temporary.

 

While the permanency of death is not yet fully understood, a child may think that death means separation, and separation from parents and the loss of care involved are frightening.

Being cared for is a realistic and practical concern, and a child needs to be reassured. Possibly the best way to answer a question is by asking a clarifying question in return: “Are you worried that I won’t be here to take care of you?” If that is the case, the reassuring and appropriate answer would be something like, “I don’t expect to die for a long time. I expect to be here to take care of you as long as you need me, but if I did die, there are lots of people to take care of you. There’s Daddy, Aunt Laura and Uncle John or Nan.”

 

It is important to check which words you use when discussing death with your kids. Some children confuse death with sleep, particularly if they hear adults refer to death with one of the many euphemisms for sleep – “they died in their sleep”, “eternal rest”, “rest in peace.” Resulting from this confusion, a child may be afraid of going to bed, incase they don’t wake up either!
Similarly, if children are told that someone who died “went away”, brief separations may begin to worry them. Grandpa “went away” and hasn’t come back yet. Maybe Mummy won’t come back from the shops or from work. Therefore, it is important to avoid such words as “sleep”, “rest”, or “went away” when talking to a child about death.

 

To avoid confusion with preschoolers and very young children, it helps to explain that only very serious illness may cause death. When they hear that sickness was the cause of death, we don’t want them to assume that minor ailments are a cause for major concern.

When a child associates death only with old age, they can become very confused when they learn that young people can die too. It is important to explain that most people live a long time, but some don’t. However we do expect that we will live a very long time (always reassure them)!