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It’s great to be a parent or a caregiver when exciting things are happening to a child. It’s a wonderful feeling to be there for the positive things that are going on in a child’s life. However, their inevitably will be times when bad things might happen. As a parent or caregiver, you will have to help them through grief. Although we want nothing more than to keep our children safe and sheltered from all that is sad in the world, it’s important to understand that things happen, and there are ways to help your child deal with pain and grief.
For many children, the death of a pet will be their first exposure to death. The bonds that children build with their pets are very strong, and the death of a pet can be a terrible experience for a family. Don't minimize its importance, or immediately replace the pet with a new animal. Give your child time to grieve. This is an opportunity to teach your child about death in a healthy way.
Death is an idea most kids know something about. They may have seen it on a TV show, in a movie, or know a friend or family who has had someone close to them die. However, experiencing it firsthand doesn’t come often and is a trying time for a child who hasn’t had feelings like that before. There are many tips for helping children through a bad time.
The most important thing is to be honest with children. Dealing with death as an adult can be very difficult, but encourage your child to ask questions, and answer them as honestly and openly as possible. Children have a hard time understanding death; how you answer questions will vary depending on age.
Answer their questions each and every time they ask. One of the hardest concepts for a child to grasp is the idea that someone might not be coming back. They may ask the same questions over and over as their way of trying to understand it. Do not get frustrated, and instead continue to answer them as openly as when they first asked.
Avoid certain phrases, such as telling kids that the loved one "went away" or "went to sleep" or even that your family "lost" the person. Because kids think so literally, saying something like that might make them afraid of going to sleep or going away.
Encourage communicating about their feelings. As parents and teachers, we encourage labeling emotions to help them socially and emotionally. Continue to ask children how they are feeling and encourage them to talk about it. If they are having trouble talking about it, there are lots of books that you can read with your child to help start the process. These books are great for reading with your child and talking about, which might help a quiet child open up about their thoughts and feelings.
Make sure, as an adult, you grieve as well. Children imitate their parents. If they see that you are sad, they might understand that it is okay to be sad. However, if you are not dealing with it personally, children might have a hard time dealing themselves. If you are angry or explosive, your child might react the same way.
As a parent, remember, you don’t have to help your child all alone. Talk to your child’s doctor if you think he or she might be reacting in a way that troubles you. Talk to your child’s teacher about incorporating a book into story time about something related, like dealing with emotions. There are many ways teachers can sneak a lesson into a curriculum without making it too personal.
Monitor how much your child might be able to see. If something traumatic happens in the news, such as 9/11, make sure you monitor how much your child sees. It’s important to maintain as much normalcy as possible – having the TV on a traumatic experience 24/7 will push the trauma into a child’s mind.
There are limitless resources for parents and caregivers on this topic. Be sure to visit your pediatrician, the local library, or the internet to help you help your child. Please remember, every child is different and there is no perfect way to help a child cope.
Nicole Chiello is an Education Specialist at The Children’s Workshop. She received a BA in Elementary Education and Psychology from URI. Nicole has been with the team for four years. Before being a director, she was a school-age coordinator, as well as a substitute for the Public Schools. Her favorite thing about working with children is the guarantee that every day is different!