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Notes From the Counseling Department
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ParenTeen Connect: Learn more about how parents and teens can forge strong relationships
Junior Parent Meeting Slides: See slides about college going for next year
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Swift Student: Get info on appealing financial aid if your finances have changed
Enrollment Deposit Waiver: Request a waiver for college enrollment deposits
Dealing with Grief in Times of Uncertainty
With the school year coming to an uncertain and potentially anticlimactic end, students and parents alike may be feeling odd sensations that are hard to describe and harder to understand. Uncertainty and change are often interpreted by our bodies the same way we understand grief and loss. Everyone has dealt with profound losses in the last few months and it's important that parents and students give themselves permission to grieve those losses. These losses obviously range in severity and scope, but the resulting pain can be manifest similar. See below for strategies in helping processes this grief from a perspective of strength and healing.
After a Loss
We all cope with grief differently. If you have several children, you may find that they express how they are feeling in surprisingly divergent ways. This can come down to personality as well as developmental age.
It is a fact that children grieve differently from adults. Young children may not even understand what loss means. They may worry they have done something to cause the loss or change. On the other hand, they might not seem too concerned about it, or even go from crying one moment to wanting to play the next. It is also normal for a child to feel angry at what has happened. As children get older they may begin to understand more, but will still need help from their parents and other caregivers on how to process and cope with loss.
Knowing what to say and how to support children during this time isn’t easy. It is likely that you, too, are grieving and trying to deal with your own emotions. While you can’t protect children from loss and the pain it may cause, you can play a major role in helping them feel secure and cope in the healthiest way possible.
Who Should Tell the Child?
If at all possible the person delivering or talking about sad news should be the person closest to the child, even if that person is a parent who is also grieving. It is okay if the person sharing the news is sad or crying, but she shouldn’t be so overwhelmed that she doesn’t have control over her emotions, which would alarm the child even more in an already scary and difficult situation. If the grieving parent is too upset to deliver the news somewhat calmly then it should be the next closest person to the child who breaks the news.
What to Say and How to Say It
There’s no perfect time to share hard news so children should be told as soon as possible, within reason. The main consideration is that you don’t want your child hearing the news unexpectedly from some other source.
Be thoughtful about where to have difficult conversations. You want to talk to your child about the difficult things they are experiencing or any hard news somewhere where he can feel free to have whatever reaction he is going to have. You might have the impulse to lessen the blow by sharing the news in a happy location, like a favorite ice cream parlor, but know that a treat won’t make the news any less sad or difficult for the child.
Try to use direct language and be prepared to give a brief explanation of how or why the loss occurred because children will be curious. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, however. With kids you want to start with the minimum amount of information and then add more based on the questions they ask. As long as it’s done in a calm and compassionate way, it is best to keep explanations shorter, simpler and more direct.
Guidelines to keep in mind
The words you choose will vary depending upon the child’s age and developmental stage, but experts agree that no matter what the age of the child there are certain guidelines you should stick to.
Follow their lead. The kinds of questions and concerns that children have can be very different from those of adults. Giving children too much information can overwhelm them. It is better to let them ask questions and then answer in the best (and most developmentally appropriate) way you can. Don’t be surprised if young children are mostly concerned about themselves. That is simply how young children are.
Encourage children to express their feelings. Do not try to “protect” or “shelter” children by attempting to hide your own sadness or fear. They will invariably know that something is wrong, but will be left feeling alone and confused. Hiding your own grief can also make children feel like the sadness they may be feeling is bad. However, try not to let children see you at your most upset moments, as they may begin to worry about you or feel insecure.
Don’t use euphemisms. Kids tend to be very literal, and this kind of fuzzy language leaves them anxious, scared and often confused.
Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Grief takes time but children benefit from the security of regular routines and knowing that life goes on.
Memorialize what has been lost. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing hopes for what might have been or fears for what is to come.
Is It Okay to Give Alone Time?
This depends somewhat on the particular child and on the child’s age. Little kids go in and out of grieving mode so it is okay to let them play alone in a room as long as you stay nearby in case they switch back into grieving. Keep play dates shorter and at your home for a while so that you can monitor them.
For teens, alone time after dealing with hard news is certainly appropriate if they want it. And with both teens and younger kids you always want to ask open-ended questions like, “What do you think?” or, “How are you feeling?” Tell them you know this will take time to process and let them know they can always come back to you with questions or just to talk about the loved one who has died.
What to Expect With Kids Ages 13-18
Teenagers are capable of abstract thought and have a much more “adult” concept of loss.
Possible expressions of grief: Extreme sadness, denial, regression, risk-taking, preference for talking to peers and others outside of the family, depression, anger, acting out, even possible suicidal thoughts.
How you can help: Encourage them to talk — if not to you, then to friends, teachers or a therapist. Do not attempt to “make it all better” or dismiss their grief. Allow them to mourn. Be available but respect their need to grieve in their own way.
When to Get Professional Help
Grieving is a natural process and it takes time. But symptoms that persist beyond six months or are very impairing can indicate that your child may need professional help to overcome her grief. Some signs your child may need professional help include:
Belief that the world is generally unsafe
Irritability, anger and moodiness
Appetite or sleep disturbances
Ongoing behavior problems
Persistent regression to earlier behavior in young children, such as clinging, bedwetting or thumb-sucking
Detachment or withdrawal from others
Use of alcohol or drugs in teens
Inability or refusal to go to school, learn or play with friends
Taking Care of Yourself
While your first impulse may be to protect and comfort your children, it is crucial that you seek help for your own grief. If you are parenting or supporting a grieving child, one of the best ways to help is to ensure that you are taking care of yourself, too.
Find good sources of support. Research shows us that how well a child does after a loss is linked to how well the adults in his life are doing. This doesn’t mean hiding your grief from your child. Rather, it means ensuring that you have people and activities in your life that provide comfort. If you need help or some time to take a break and clear your head, prioritize asking for it.
By accessing support, you model for your children ways to take care of themselves, and you reassure them that you will have the energy and presence to be there for them. Be prepared to accept help from friends, relatives and possibly mental health professionals.
Phyllis Farlow, last names A-E, email@example.com
Crystal Laws, last names F-L, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Westbrook, last names M-R, email@example.com
Kelly Schaeffer, last names S-Z, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jose Ortega, College Adviser, email@example.com
Nick Montgomery, CDC, firstname.lastname@example.org
Zach Young, Counseling Intern, email@example.com
Kanyinsola Charis, Counseling Intern, firstname.lastname@example.org