Monthly Q&A – Grieving, Transitions and News Anxiety

How to Deal With Grieving

Q. My 3.5 yo nephew’s adored grandmother has just died. She lived far away and he and his mother have just spent two weeks with her. They just got back only to discover that she died right after they left. My question is how his parents should handle this with my nephew. She was very special to him and he was very, very fond of her. Should they be honest, should they just say that she has gone to heaven – how honest would you recommend they be with a 3.5 year old’s processing of the news and his handling of grief?

My sister in law’s first reaction was to not tell him but I feel that’s a mistake yet completely respect where its coming from. They are going back but leaving my nephew here with me for the week so he can go to school and they can be kid free to grieve themselves and attend to the family unencumbered. But do you think it’s important that he go back too? Apparently the funeral will be brief, a cremation and no mass or eulogies etc, so not sure how much he would get from being there?

A. I agree that there is no need for him to go and a great deal of need for your brother and sister-in-law to be able to grieve with no filters about how it might affect a three-year-old. If they haven’t told him before they leave, I think you can continue the story that his parents went back to give more help. When they return, I believe they need to be very honest with him that his grandmother has died, that he won’t be able to see her again, and how lucky it was that he got to see her just before she died.

Talk to him about her, his memories and stories, etc. and encourage those memories to live forever with him telling him that that is how we keep loved ones with us forever. He will not understand death in the way that an adult or even an older child understands it. We fear telling children because we are afraid they can’t handle it but it’s probably more the truth that we can’t handle it.

Simply tell him the truth and answer his questions and comfort his tears. He will likely handle it better than if he were older. It’s possible that he may transfer this and worry that this means other people in his life will die. This takes careful but honest support and patience through a new understanding that is hard. But this age is very possibly a good time for him to have a lesson on death. You can talk to him about how everything dies like the leaves on the trees and bugs and frogs. There are good children’s books that can be helpful. One of my favorites is an oldie called, Nanna Upstairs, Nanna Downstairs.

Transitions

Q. I have a 9 year old boy, 2 girls ages 7 & 6 and boy age 2. Their father and I live together. It’s not the healthiest of relationships which we’re working on either improving or parting ways all together… But the issue I am writing about is that my husband works on the road and when he’s gone, we all get into a nice – busy (!) routine with school, work, soccer, life. He’s gone for weeks or months at a time and when he comes home and leaves again, everything gets completely out of whack.

I try to help the kids adjust the best I can but my 9 year old in particular has the hardest time lately. He really acts out after his Dad leaves – mostly with MAJOR attitude with me and meanness towards his sisters… just not his typical self. How can I deal with this behavior or help him adjust? He’s usually a loving, sweet boy!

A. Does your 9 yo have a hard time with transitions in general? It is an inborn temperament, which would make it harder for him than other kids who make transitions more easily. Something must get in his head when his father leaves that causes him to feel bad — whether he thinks his father doesn’t really want to be around him, or he blames you for his father leaving — something even irrational to cause his upset. It’s good to hear it’s not his typical self.

You can help him by expecting and understanding this even though you may not know the exact reason. Make sure you let him know that you get it that it’s especially hard for him, and you wonder if he is upset that neither you nor his sisters feel the same way. If you have an idea of why it is, give it a guess (not a question) as in, “I wonder if you think your dad leaves because of me or because of you.”

This is tricky territory but if you can open the door, the floodgates may follow which is a really good thing. Getting through tough times and coming out the other end is what builds resilience. If you get a sense he is taking it in, go further with, “I wonder if you hear us argue and worry that Daddy might not come back” or “Sometimes kids think when their dad is away a lot that it means he doesn’t want to be with you.” Remember you are not saying this is true. You are wondering if something might feel true for him. Usually parents are afraid to hit the sore spots for fear of putting ideas in his head. If you are wrong he will be happy to tell you.

These are connecting bridges that may acknowledge and validate his feelings (don’t tell him how he feels – ex. “I know you’re mad about your dad being gone.” Kids hate to be told how they feel). If you hit it or even come close, he will feel understood which will likely diminish his need to act out. When he does, tell him he has every right to be mad or upset. Reassure him but not until you have made this connection. Then talk about what he can do with these big emotions so as not to be aggressive toward his sisters or you. Ask him how you can help. If he doesn’t know make some suggestions. “Would it help if we had a secret signal that told me you were getting really mad inside?” You may want to talk to him about all this before his dad comes back or just before his dad leaves again and make a plan with him about handling the transition.

News Anxiety

Q. I have 2 boys, 13 and 16. We never have the news on in our house. My kids know I am opposed to having it on. I’m wondering if they are getting the message from me that because I can’t handle hearing the news, they shouldn’t bring up any fears they might have about current events i.e. shootings. It’s possible they don’t have fears related to current events (I haven’t noticed any change in their behaviors), and it’s possible that because they are 13 and 16, they are not going to talk to me about these subjects although I feel we have a good connection.

A class that my 13 year old is in discusses current events and my older son is frequently on his phone reading the news so of course they are aware of what’s going on. I can safely say they are more aware than I am. My question is, should I ask them how they feel in response to these events even when they don’t bring up anything? Should I wait for behaviors indicative of anxiety? Am I setting a “bad” example by being so opposed to the news? Am I conveying that I can’t handle reality?

A. I certainly understand and support not having news on in the house when your children are young and cannot process horrible events. However as teenagers, it’s a different story, especially savvy teens who have current events classes at school and read the news. Whether or not they think you can’t handle it, what is going on in the world, especially unconscionable events like the recent shooting/s, the sexual abuse of powerful men, etc. home is the most important place to talk about and process the fears, worries, shock and confusion these stories provoke. They won’t necessarily provoke anxiety that you would be aware of. You want your kids to be informed, but more than that, you want them to have solid values when it comes to facing events in the world out of their control — so that what they can control going forward are the actions of good men.

Not only is it important to discuss current events with your teens, but it is such good material to keep everyone together and connected at the dinner table. Of course you do not want to lay your opinions and outrage on your kids. But you can bring up the subjects from your point of view. “I cannot believe the tragedy for all those innocent concert goers in Las Vegas. What are you hearing at school/from your friends?” or “I wonder if you have heard much talk about the Harvey Weinstein story and the abuse he apparently has wrought in Hollywood.” Turning to them and what they have heard will give you a good idea of what they know and how much they want to talk about it. If they don’t know about a story like this, it is my opinion they should, so you can talk about mental illness, gun control, the treatment of women, and bring it right down to how they can imagine behaving — what they think is right and wrong. Then you can all chime in with your opinions.

When anything is on the table for discussion, your kids will know where to talk about serious matters. When they think you don’t want to hear about it, they will get their information and opinions from their peers. You do not want that to happen. If you keep the news off because it is too jarring and unsettling for you, then this is also great to talk about as a family. Your teens are only getting older and you want to be an integral part of their lives and the values they take into their adulthood.

To submit a question, email me at bh@bonnieharris.com with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.

 

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