When a child experiences the loss of someone close, such as a parent, or has been separated from parents, she may go in and out of periods of rage or depression. Depression in a child may or may not look just like an adult’s depression. It may emerge as misbehavior, fighting, frequent lying, stealing, sleep or eating disturbances, difficulty with school work, and with concentration. It may also take more adult-typical forms, like withdrawal, apathy and hopelessness. Physical complaints may be frequent, such as headaches, tummy aches, or increased preoccupation with illness and death.
As a response to a big loss, a child may work very hard to keep feelings of sadness or anger completely bottled up. Doing this causes the child a lot of stress. It takes considerable energy to keep all that powerful stuff in. Feelings may be repressed because of fear of being too different from schoolmates, or of upsetting a surviving parent or other family members. The child may be afraid of her internal thoughts and emotions, or may be worried about not being able to control them, if they come spilling out. This is probably not fully understood intellectually, but is more of a feeling about the world, and about things in general, being out of control, due to the loss of the parent or of another loved one. The child may worry a lot about a surviving parent, and about other family members becoming ill, leaving or dying, depending on whether the loss was through death, divorce, or something else. He or she may develop phobias.
When a child maintains a tight lid on feelings, in an attempt to keep life more manageable, she may need to create situations that frequently get her into trouble. This then lets the bottled up sadness and anger emerge, but not necessarily in a way that allows the real issues to be understood and worked on. When she gets into trouble over what has happened, the rage and/or tears are released, but this can then reinforce the feelings of being alone, abandoned, and misunderstood. The child can develop the thinking that she was abandoned because she was somehow not being good enough, or did something wrong. Thus, a vicious cycle ensues. The most painful issues don’t come to the surface, without help from someone trained and knowledgeable, and without the sensitivity of the important parental figure, or figures in the child’s life..
A child can be helped to recognize some of the physical signs that really mean sadness or anger is being felt. She can be helped with certain games and creative exercises that allow the difficult emotions to come out, while also creating awareness at the child’s developmental level. She can be taught that there are safe ways of letting out sad or mad feelings, and ways of comprehending them.
Children who are separated from parents with serious family troubles, who are put into foster care, or placed for adoption, may have similar reactions to separation from first caregivers, as children who have lost a parent through death. Sometimes to a child, separation and death, feel quite the same. If you, as an adult, have ever lost someone close to you, you can probably understand those feelings.
When you are dealing with a child’s tough problems every day, and are stressed by them, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. It’s easy to feel angry or guilty yourself, and to forget what could be the underlying reasons for the way a child is behaving. This is especially true when you are grieving too. It’s crucial to remember that sometimes the child (or adult) who needs the most love, can be the hardest one to love.
When some of the above patterns become ongoing, it’s time to seek help. It’s not time to lay blame, whether on yourself, or others. Different kinds of therapy modalities are available through private practitioners, or clinics, depending on your means. It’s not a one-size fits all proposition, and may require you, the parent or caregiver, to do some research and vetting. A good place to begin, is with your state, county or city Info Line Referral Service, (Google it) a local child welfare or child guidance agency, or a parent support group. Even a young child can benefit from working with a skilled therapist. There are a couple of kinds of play therapies, such as child-centered play therapy, and filial therapy. Filial therapy involves the parent or caregiver more, and provides support and empathy for the parent, as well as for the child, while focusing on the relationship. Sometimes the best gift a parent can give to a child, is to go get some help and support for him or herself. A therapist or life coach might be just what is needed to support you in supporting your child, and in making any needed changes in your outlook or behavior that could benefit you, and the child or whole family.
Iris J. Arenson-Fuller, PCC, Certified Professional Coach, specializes in Life Stage, Family & Relationship Changes, including loss of all kinds and adoption issues and loss.
Iris can be found at www.visionpoweredcoaching.com
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