Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Death, Dying & Grief: How to Help Kids

I believe one of life's most difficult challenges (even as an adult) is accepting and coping with death, and grappling with our own immortality. For children, coming to terms with the loss of a someone or something close to them can be confusing and hard to comprehend. Throw into this process the idea of reincarnation, heaven, hell, etc., and it can become even more abstract and thought-provoking.

One of the rewarding aspects of being a counselor is getting to answer kids' questions about all sorts of topics. More often than not, they involve friendships and family matters, but occasionally the subject of death and dying comes up. One session that I had last year with one of our grade 5 girl's, really sticks out, because she and her family had just experienced the sudden loss of a close and young family member.  It is during these times, that I feel especially vulnerable, even as a counselor, because it's sometimes difficult to find just the right words to say. Any adult that has been to a funeral or wake can understand this feeling of, "Whatever I am going to say is NOT going to make a difference."

However, I really believe that, out of tragedy, comes opportunities to build closer connections with those around you. Specifically, life's toughest moments offer the chance to have meaningful conversations with loved ones, especially children, who may need this valuable dialogue to know how to conceptualize what has occurred. Death is, inevitably, something that all children will face, and it's important that parents know how to talk to their kids about this. It helps to remember that, based on age and development, children have varying ideas about death and dying, to include it's permanence. Each child is unique, therefore, there is no "one size fits all" approach, but here are some great resources and ideas for talking to kids about death. The following information was taken from healthychildren.org.

Infants & toddlers
Infants and toddlers do not understand death, but they can sense what their caregiver is experiencing. Take care of yourself and recognize your own need to grieve. Keep as many routines as possible intact, as these allow the child to feel more safe and secure by knowing what to expect. Giving extra physical attention to comfort your child and may also be beneficial during this time. 

Preschoolers (Ages 3-5)

Preschoolers see death as something temporary. Because young children are concrete thinkers, it is important that they are told about death in simple, clear language. Do not use euphemisms like, "She has gone to sleep," "…traveled to the great beyond," or "…passed away." 
Instead, young children should be told that their loved one has died and "that means we will no longer be able to see her." You can explain that, sometimes when old people become very sick, their bodies may stop working, and that is when people die. If it is a younger person that passed away, a similar explanation can be given. Be prepared for young children to continue to ask where the deceased is or when they are coming back. Give clear messages, but balance this out with discussions about memories you have with this particular person, and that these will remain forever. For young children, using solely religious explanations may be ineffective because they need much more concrete, specific explanations about the physical realities of death.
Because young children can't always express their feelings, their thoughts and fears often will come out at unexpected times, like in their play. Play can be the language of childhood, so remain alert to what kids may be trying to tell you through their play.

School-aged children (Ages 6-11)

School-aged children begin to understand death as a final event and will begin to realize that everyone dies someday. Give your child simple and honest explanations (e.g., "Aunt May had a disease that made her very sick, and she died.") about what happened and then ask her what she understands. Give children repeated opportunities to talk about their feelings. 
Younger school-aged children also may not yet understand the causality of death. It is common for them to personify death (i.e., think of death as the "boogeyman" or a ghost). They may believe they are to blame and feel guilty for what happened. Assure them that nothing they said or did (or didn't say or do) caused the death and that nothing they do can bring the deceased back.
Children may also worry that they will be left alone, especially by the death of a significant adult. They may also ask you about when you're going to die. Don't be surprised if your child becomes cuddlier, more watchful, and more possessive of your time.
  • Remind your child that not everyone who gets sick will die, and most often the body heals itself
  • Reassure her of your health
  • Let her know how many people in his life care for her.
  • Encourage and facilitate opportunities for you, your child and family to engage in fun activities that can be a distraction during difficult times
  • Take care of yourself and make sure you have support 
In the tragic event of a loss of a parent, sibling, or very close family member, keeping this person's memory alive is invaluable in order to help children cope. Photo albums, special mementos or items belonging to the deceased can serve as a great source of comfort for children experiencing this more extreme kind of grief. Often, I have children complete picture books depicting fond memories or images they have in their mind about that particular person. As they draw, I will ask questions, but more often prefer to listen to them discuss their pictures. Enclosed are additional activities from pbs.org, which has many helpful resources for grieving families. Ahaparenting also offers some good advice.  
Furthermore, as with most other topics, books can often be wonderful in teaching children about death and dying. Here are many examples of literature which explores this experience and prompt conversations about it, in addition to books I've found that have gotten very favorable reviews ("God Gave Us Heaven," by Lisa T. Begren and Laura J. Bryant;  "I Miss You," by Pat Thomas; &  "The Invisible String," by Patrice Karst). The books depicted below are available in my office for parents to borrow.

Lastly, if you feel like you need a bit of assistance discussing the death of someone in your child's life, please do not hesitate to reach out. Even if it means letting your daughter know that I am available if they need to speak with me, or to "normalize" the grieving process for them (because, as adults, we've all gone through this, to varying extents), I am happy to help.

~Ms. Carnright

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Does Friendship Have to be a Puzzle?

The title of this blog post was also the title of my bulletin board. The inspiration arose due to the number of students I see who struggle to solve friendship problems without adult intervention. And, while I have witnessed what I believe to be benefits to an all-girls education, I've come to understand that the male population can, at times, buffer some of the "drama" that seems to unfold more frequently among even the youngest of females. I wrote a blog post entitled, "Peace Be With You and Begins With You," earlier in the year, that goes into greater detail about the kinds of behaviors that are commonplace in girl world. 

Grade 4 students are used to the "roller coaster" metaphor when speaking about friendships, which is why they were asked to complete a puzzle activity (see above) outlining what they believe to be important characteristics of friends. The activity was taken from a curriculum I've come to really love, called The Ophelia Project: Kids Helping Kids. Most chose similar attributes and discussed how friendships tend to become more meaningful the older they (we) get. Last year, I utilized another activity from The Ophelia Project, but this time it was from the "Let's Be Friends," program designed for grades 2 and 3. The girls were asked to come up with their "friendship recipe," as if they could create a friend using a perfect combination of "ingredients." Here are two of my favorites from Olivia O. (3A) and Kaho (3A). 
Perhaps the most challenging thing about friendships is solving the conflicts that arise and knowing when maybe a friendship isn't quite working out the way you had hoped or the way it once had. Well-intentioned parents often try to guide their children in the right direction when it comes to their relationships, and want to offer sound advice. Sometimes, though, active listening can be a better strategy, rather than simply offering solutions or taking action to fix the problem for them. Throw in some questions that allow them to take different perspectives and see the conflict through a different lens and POOF: you've got kids who are building the skills necessary to more easily get through these rough friendship patches. I believe it's also important to remember that arguing/fighting IS important, not only because it's inevitable, but because it allows your child valuable practice opportunities for solving their relationship problems. Dr. Laura Markam, author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting" said it best with this statement: "Children need to develop their voices, learn how to express their needs, and try out strategies to meet their goals." In short, they have to figure out what words for them and learn from their mistakes. And, like us, they'll make plenty of them!

A few resources to help parents know how to better guide their kids in the social world include ahaparenting (complete with many recommended books at the bottom of the page) and pbs.org, which specifically targets girl issues. Books can also be really valuable when trying to teach kids about conflict resolution and pro-social coping skills. One book by Madonna titled, "The English Roses," has been a hit with many of my students. For older students, the Chicken Soup series is great, and several can be found in our ES media center. I also really like the books pictured below, that happen to live in my office. 
When reading books to and with your children, asking thought-provoking questions has two benefits: it can encourage their comprehension and ability to self-reflect on their own experiences. "Can you tell me a time about when this happened to you?" or "Wow, this character is having a big problem. How do you think you would have handled it?" and, "What could the character have done differently that would have changed the story?" are just a few examples of the kinds of queries you can give. I always find it amazing the kinds of responses that kids have and their eagerness to make a connection or share instances when they've gone through something similar. 

Parents and teachers, what successful strategies have you used to teach your kids about friendships and conflict resolution? 

~Ms. Carnright :)