Every family experiences painful losses. Beloved pets and family members die. So do hopes and marriages. Tragedies and accidents happen, unfortunately.
As parents, we may not be able to protect our children from crisis or loss, but we can react in a way that prevents it from tearing the family apart. What matters isn’t whether you have a crisis, but how you handle it.
First, a bit of definition: A crisis can shake up a single family or an entire community or nation. Our children are vicariously affected by the disaster news out of Myanmar and China, but I want to talk here about the kind of family crises we commonly see at Youth Eastside Services.
A crisis to my family may not be a crisis to yours. A personal crisis is just that – personal. But generally, there is a sense of loss or danger and a choice or choices to be made.
Many things can lead to crisis, including the loss of a job, separation and divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and legal troubles, and sickness and injury, to name a few. Even good things, like birth and marriage, can bring major stress on a family.
Such upheavals can bring a complex knot of emotions, including grief, fear, anger, anxiety and helplessness. At Youth Eastside Services, we tell parents and families working through crises that there is no normal reaction, no right or wrong way to feel.
For example, some children may behave as if nothing is wrong. They may not know what to feel or say, particularly if they have mixed feelings about a loss or a person who has died.
Parents need to let their children know that their emotions – whatever they are – are okay, says Bertie Conrad, our supervisor of school-based counseling at YES. She recommends the following books and games for parents who would like a little help exploring or explaining complicated feelings:
For younger children: Goodbye Mousie (Harris, 2001) and I Miss You: A First Look at Death (Thomas, 2001).
For pre-teens and adolescents: When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Brown and Brown, 1996) and What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? (Romain, 1999)
The Good-Bye Game (Childswork/Childsplay) or The Grief Game (Jessica Kinglsey Publishers)
Bertie also advises parents to take the time to reflect on their own reactions and feelings before talking to their children. Tell them enough so that they understand the situation and feel safe and cared for, but not so much that they share the burden of an adult problem.
The flip side of saying too much is saying too little. Don’t blithely tell your child that everything will be okay or go on as if nothing happened. Acknowledge the significance of the problem or loss, while providing reassurance: “This is a difficult time. I understand that you’re feeling sad, but I know we can get through this together.”
During and after the crisis, make yourself available to your children and check in with them from time to time. Don’t assume that they’re “over it” because they don’t show any outward signs of distress. Let them know it’s okay to talk and that you’re there to listen.
Here are some other tips for getting your family through troubled times:
Maintain routines as much as possible to give family members a sense of control.
Consider starting a ritual to honor a loved one who has died.
Have a family meeting to discuss issues that arise, and communicate with your child’s teachers.
Don’t hesitate to call on friends, relatives, your church or a family counselor if you need extra support. Even the strongest parents and families can benefit from outside help sometimes.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is the executive director of Youth Eastside Services. For more information, call 425-747-4937 or go to www.youtheastsideservices.org.