A parent's guide to comfort your child when he's hurting
When tragedy strikes, helping children cope is an important part of the recovery process. Focus On The Family Singapore shares several ideas on how you can help your child.
When tragedy hits, life becomes filled with uncertainties. But one thing is true: the experience your family faces is not the way you would have written life’s script. Something painful, even catastrophic, has occurred in your world, and you are now left with the challenge of trying to pick up the pieces and move forward. Helping children cope is of utmost importance.
When a child witnesses or experiences a tragedy, your guidance and input as a parent is crucial to their recovery and understanding of the situation. Humans are designed to be resilient in the face of difficult circumstances as long as they face the pain. Keep in mind that each child is different — one’s personality, past experiences and age can create unique reactions that require specific responses on your part. Observe your child and see what emotional and mental changes are detectable since the trauma occurred.
1. Try to maintain a routine for a sense of normalcy.
When crisis strikes, disorientation, doubt and confusion will arise. A balanced routine gives your child something familiar to hold onto, even when much of their world appears uncertain. Identify the activities that can continue with minimal interruption. Can familiar food be prepared? Can a bedtime routine carry on uninterrupted? Can a child continue school life as before? No doubt, circumstances will require change, but giving thought to how you can maintain familiar patterns will be well worth the effort.
2. Encourage your child to be honest with their emotions.
It can help to use simple analogies to present the importance of facing our feelings. For example, you could talk about a wound. A wound needs to be cleaned and exposed to air (even through a bandage) to heal. It can be painful to clean out the germs and dirt, but unless you do that, the wound will not get better. It may even get worse!
A child may develop behavioral patterns that lock out fears or hurts. Social withdrawal, passivity, aggressiveness, rebellion or busyness and even substance abuse may be used to push the feelings away. Such patterns may win the battle but will ultimately lose the war. They may create a false sense of peace for the moment at the expense of gaining true freedom from the enslaving emotions. Remind your child that expressing their emotions is important and part of the healing process.
3. Accept your child’s emotions as they are.
A child’s emotions will vary. One may initially experience shock, disbelief or denial. The range of emotions such as fear, hurt, anger, rage, doubt, hopelessness, guilt, apathy, sadness and even depression, may come and go. As a parent, you play a vital role of acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings, however extreme they might seem. When your child expresses emotions, accept them; don’t try to produce a different emotion that makes you feel more comfortable. Generally, if your child is honestly facing his emotions, resolution will gradually take place.
Give verbal, emotional and physical support through praise, hugs and a listening ear. A sense of security will often give your child the strength to face the trauma.
In helping children cope, what else can you do? Read on to the next page.
4. Let your child ask questions about life at a deeper level.
“Is there anything beyond what we see?
Why is there suffering in our world?
What happens when we die?”
These are important questions children often struggle with. Give them the freedom to raise them. The questions children ask provide a window into the ways they are trying to make sense of what has happened recently. You don’t need to know all the answers, but it will be valuable for you to grapple with some of these same issues if you have not already done so.
5. Accept non-verbal forms of processing the tragic event.
Not all ways of addressing pain are done through discussion, especially in children. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Art, games and drama can convey deep fears and hurts surrounding a tragedy that would otherwise have been left unsaid. Journaling and poetry may express through a pen what would never be uttered through one’s lips. Be creative with your child and find ways to express and discuss these emotions. For example, finger painting might give expression to one’s sense of confusion about the trauma.
6. Have fun with your child.
As difficult as it may feel, do things that allow you to laugh together. Playing games, telling jokes or sharing family stories can help lighten everyone’s load. Working through the pain will take time, but fun and laughter are a necessary part of the process. A board game, a trip to the zoo, or a good movie together can help put a smile on your child’s face. Grieving can’t take place in a non-stop fashion — we all need the emotional break that fun provides.
If for some reason your child doesn’t talk freely with you, let him talk to a safe, familiar person about the tragedy.
Sharing feelings with someone will be a great help in processing the recent event, even if it’s not with a parent. Sometimes the only alternative is holding it in, but that won’t help. If possible, that person should be the same gender as your child and share your worldview.
Your long-term goal as a parent can be to develop a more open relationship with your child. Sharing your feelings will work to develop a closer connection for the future.
Dealing with tragedy has its ebbs and flows. One may be moving forward quite well and then, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, get hit with a wave of emotions. Let your child know that such an experience is normal. These waves of grief will come, but if dealt with appropriately, will diminish over time.
Give your child the chance to meet others who have also gone through the tragedy. If someone is not allowed around others who’ve gone through a similar struggle, it can lead a person to believe that they’re the only one. It helps to be around others who are able to share their stories of healing and hope. It’s important, though, that someone helps guide the group so that there is a constructive tone to the discussion.
Copyright © 2016. Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd.
If someone you love is battling with depression, contact us at Focus on the Family Singapore at 64910700 or via our website here, to make an appointment with a counsellor.