How to help children deal with grief

By Junior June Manala

If children are distracted from talking about fear and anxiety, they often become preoccupied and feel alone with their worries. Educational psychologist, Junior June Manala explains how caregivers can help children navigate distress.

What are the signs of distress to look out for in a child?

Parents and primary caregivers are the most important people in children’s lives in the early dependent years. It follows that stressful relationship environments are deeply felt by all children. Unfortunately, emotional distress is not often talked about. Yet, babies and toddlers, like other children, are highly attuned to shifts in their caregivers’ emotional states, verbal tone, facial expression, and movement. Infants and young children are immensely affected by stressful situations, and if the stress is chronic, it can impact their developing brain neural connections. Toxic stress can change a baby’s brain chemistry and their overall development trajectory. (Graham Music, Sue Gerhardt,)

Manifestation of distress in infants and young children may include but is not limited to (especially when these occur out of the ordinary or suddenly):

  • Crying
  • Refusal to feed
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Hiccupping
  • Positing
  • Screeching sounds
  • Clinginess
  • Pale or reddish skin pallor
  • Eczema
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sleeping problems
  • Anger

At times too much activity in the arms and legs of a newborn is an indication of distress. In this case, gathering the infant together and wrapping them up nicely and speaking softly to them can have a calming effect.

Adolescents grieve loss just like adults and may hide their vulnerability by isolating themselves or turning outward for peer group support more than usual. However, teenagers may engage in risky behaviour to mask or numb emotions. Amazingly too, neuroscientists e.g., Dan Siegel, 2013 writes that adolescence is a period of major brain growth that can enhance creative thinking if adults can engage and listen.

If we consider behaviours as the language of children that need to be translated into words, then we are well on the way to teaching our children to connect their feelings-in-the-body with their behaviour. This helps soothe, calm, or relax the central nervous system that is operating in a fight or flight or freeze mode.

What are some of the causes of distress?

Many responsible parents take particularly good care of their children’s practical needs such as feeding, grooming, etc., but what often gets neglected is attention to emotional needs. As a result of the emotional neglect and unmet attachment needs, distress will arise.

Examples of some of the causes are:

  • Unrealistic demands of children beyond their age and capability. Infants do not understand death but respond to loss and separation of a loved one by protesting it. Some young children might search for the person in their usual places.
  • Children aged 7-8 years old may not understand the permanence of death and regard the deceased as sleeping. Seeing the loved one in a coffin and attending a burial leaves the child with worries as to how the loved one will “get out” of the box when there is so much heavy soil over them.
  • In many African cultures’ children are protected from seeing corpses. They may come to understand death as an emotionally charged situation, where main caregivers are preoccupied in their grief, which can be overwhelming for children. This leaves memories and experiences that are not processed since adults often find it hard to speak to children about death.

The vast body of knowledge by neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp, Allan Shore among others, indicates we can intentionally build our children’s brains and resilience to toxic stress from pregnancy through the first two and half years by attending to feelings, naming them, and allowing for their expression. The way we hold our children, look at them, speak to them and respond to their inborn natural attachment needs is learned and stored in our children’s brains.

What can I do to reduce the risk of distress in our home?

Parents need to remind themselves that they want the best for their children and that parenting is hard especially when faced with a pandemic which brings sudden change and the loss of loved ones.

The idea of “good enough” parenting is quite freeing. Parents might need to be reminded of self-care, which is what they need to recharge their emotional cups. Another reminder is that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. This helps to reduce some of the pressure parents face.

Thoughtfulness and intention to be a good parent is a given for many parents and includes paying attention to the following:

  • Noticing your response is the first step towards being emotionally available to yourself and creating moments for self-care to refill your emotional energy.
  • Having a support system helps in generating a blanket of warmth and care in difficult times.
  • Being calm helps you transmit the same calmness to your children.
  • Maintaining consistency in caregiving routines such as feeding and bedtimes.
  • Asking for help and cooperation from your children such as tidying and putting away things in the home.
  • Avoiding activities that are likely to heighten stress and anxiety i.e., long hours of watching and listening to violent movies or long periods on social media. Create spaces for play or talking or storytelling that soothes rather than arouses anxiety.

What are the key things I should do to help?

Remembering that you are bigger, stronger, and wiser than your child will help you to find your calm. This is contrary to complaints that young children or infants are controlling and manipulating their parents. Remember that infants and young children’s brains are not yet sufficiently developed to “control”.

Love your children for who they are not for how they behave and encourage them to come to you when they are distressed.

This is our step-by-step way to comfort a child.

  • Take in your child’s emotions as if you are in their shoes (empathy) rather than being dismissive of their emotional pain.
  • Find your calm and lend your calm to the child (co-regulate through your face and eye contact), use a soft voice and smooth movements to soothe a fearful or upset child. Holding or gentle touching helps to soothe. Children prefer bodily contact.
  • When you are sure that you have the child’s attention, find the words to help them find their own words to speak about how they are feeling.

As an example, let’s say Mpho is moving from one activity to another without really thinking about what he is doing and why. This is an example of nervous emotional energy expressed as restlessness or hyperactivity. Supposing mum were to gently say, “Mpho, come here,” and held him kindly, lowering her voice and directing kind eyes to him saying, “I can see that you are telling me that you are unhappy inside.” If mum pauses and allows him to really take this in, over time, he learns to connect how nervousness or fear shows in his body.  It is likely that mum will notice relaxation in Mpho and he might be able to respond positively in words. Mum will have succeeded in noticing the distress, understanding the language of his behaviour and translating the behaviour into words. This process is co-regulation and soothing for Mpho.

When should I, as a parent, seek help for my child?

When distress disrupts the normal functioning of the child and the family it is a call for help, particularly when the caregivers have tried everything without success. It will then be time to seek professional assistance.

For babies and young children under five, help can be sought from parent-infant psychotherapists such on Gauteng Association for Infant Mental Health South Africa (GAIMHSA); Ububele African Psychotherapy and Training Centre; Grow Great runs Flourish prenatal and postnatal programmes

For children and adolescents, telephonic help is available from Lifeline or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. Public schools have school-based support teams that can assist children. Some universities offer counselling services to communities at minimum costs or for free.

Private practitioners such as clinical social workers, counsellors and psychologists are available at a cost.

Junior Manala offers play therapy, parent infant and under Fives psychotherapy, Strubenvalley Assessment and Therapy Centre.