Amanda Seyderhelm is a certified Play Therapist and author of Isaac and the Red Jumper, a therapeutic story to support bereaved children, and Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change, published by Routledge. Below she shares 10 ways to support a grieving child.
Covid-19 has had an unprecedented ripple effect through our society, not least in opening up conversations around loss and grief within families.
The disruption to daily life and school closures have pushed parents into the uncomfortable position of being honest with their children, whilst striving to maintain their sense of safety and peace of mind.
When there is a death in the family, children can respond in many different ways. They are not always emotionally mature to communicate their grief, worries and anxieties using direct language so tend to reflect their emotions through changes in behaviour – sleep disruption, eating disorders, mood swings.
Tantrums are common when there is an emotional imbalance in a child, and if not dealt with appropriately, these moods can quickly snowball into reduced resilience or behavioural ‘acting out’. This is why, when such extreme emotional situations occur like death or other issues such as divorce, changing routines and friends or moving away, it is critical to help children work out their world by providing them with a safe space in which they can express their feelings and emotions, receiving the answers and support they crave.
So, as parents, how can you best support your child and halt the emotional rippling effect of grief, before it starts?
- Do not confront them directly about their feelings. As soon as you try to confront a child directly about difficult experiences, the risk is that they will shut down and will consequently feel more isolated in their grief. By confronting children directly we risk shaming and embarrassing them because they don’t yet have the cognitive functioning to fully express their feelings verbally.
- Build connection through play. A child’s natural language is play so to help children understand their world we need to engage with them through playful and creative activities. This will help them to relax and open up.
- Connect through therapeutic storytelling. Connecting through play is best done through storytelling. Stories give frightened or withdrawn children the tools to discover their voice. They find themselves in the characters of the story which helps them to make sense of the events happening around them, and to them. I recommend finding books that reflect the experience the child is going through. Sit alongside them through the reading and then use the story as a conversational prompt afterwards. This opens the door to allowing the child to express their feelings, using the story character to do this for them.
- Hear your child. Show that you’ve heard them by reflecting back what they’ve said. This reassures them that they are not alone and their anxiety will immediately drop.
- Do you feel insecure? If you’re feeling fearful or anxious, it will be difficult for you to convey reassurance and safety to your child. Choose the time to address your child’s grief when you feel most in control and calm.
- Make time to talk. Build a time into your schedule for your child to unwind and share how they are feeling.
- Let them draw. Drawing allows children to process their worries, express their imagination and envision a new story.
- Love your child unconditionally. Love and accept your child unconditionally and address and challenge the behaviour not them as a person. E.g. dicuss the child’s agression but don’t define the child as aggressive.
- Build self-belief. Help your child to solve their problems so they feel capable and resourceful. Resist rushing in before they can handle it.
- Take time for you. You will be most calm and capable when you are taking good care of you. You are less likely to lose your temper or your patience when you are rested. It’s basic self-care.
Summary. Your key role in supporting your child’s grief is to simply to play with him or her. Plan quality time with your child so they will feel heard and understood.
If you need additional support, reach out to an external resource, whether that be through a charity such as Child Bereavement UK or a professional such as myself – find your community and build the support system that is right for you because you don’t need to do this alone.
Amanda’s Free downloadable resource – Therapeutic Storytelling Toolkit.
Read more guest posts here.