Losing a loved one or coping with serious illness can be stressful for children, particularly those too young to effectively express emotions using words. Children may feel confused about experiencing multiple emotions at once, such as sadness and anger, or may have difficulty understanding that a bodily sensation can be an indicator of an emotion (such as restlessness caused by anxiety).
Most children also have limited experience with loss or tragic events, which further complicates their ability to process emotions. “Big feelings” are the powerful, confusing or overwhelming emotions that accompany these upsetting times.
Following are some simple, yet effective approaches to encourage your child to communicate about difficult emotions:
- Initiate the conversation at a quiet, private time. Your child may be more likely to talk about difficult feelings if you approach them in private at a more relaxed time when you can talk one on one, such as at bedtime or when you are in the car together.
- Model openness and vulnerability by speaking briefly about your own feelings. For example, “I noticed that ever since Grandma has been sick, I have been feeling sad and upset sometimes, and talking about it has helped me feel better. I wonder if you have been having big feelings, too.”
- Say what you’re seeing, then check in. “It seems like you aren’t playing as much, and you don’t feel like eating dinner sometimes. Does it seem that way to you, too?”
- Practice being fully present with your child. Begin by telling your child that you will listen to them without interrupting. Follow through by providing your full attention, showing your child with your eyes and body language that you are hearing them.
- Let your child know that you are available to help, but without focusing on “fixing” the problem. We all have big feelings sometimes, especially in difficult situations related to loss or illness. Sometimes children respond positively if you offer to brainstorm together about ways to make the difficult situation feel a little easier. Other times, you may find that your child simply wants to be together and have their emotions acknowledged.
Some children may not want to open up verbally, and that’s okay; some children are more likely to demonstrate their emotions through behavior, expressive arts or other nonverbal ways to communicate.
Call Kids Path for a free phone consultation.
The licensed counselors at Kids Path are available by phone during business hours to talk with parents, caregivers, teachers or anyone in the community about how to best support a grieving child through loss or illness. Simply call 336. 544.5437 and ask to speak with a counselor.