There are two ways of dealing with a child’s grief or trauma, the first is the old-fashioned way of ignoring it, never mentioning the issue and pretending it doesn’t exist. That was in the bad old days before we recognised the possibly long-lasting harm of burying or repressing trauma, but it was probably done with the best intentions at the time.
‘Best left. Best not bring it up. It’ll go away. Least said, soonest mended.’
The second way is the modern way, and we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. These days we don’t leave it alone, we focus on the trauma, we keep picking the scab, we encourage our children to talk, talk, talk and if we’re really worried we get in professional therapists and counsellors to help.
I would never presume to tell any parent whether their child needs professional help or not, but what I do think is that we need to hold off and slow down a bit before making decisions like that.
I am wary of the therapy culture we live in because of the underlying message we may be sending to young children if we choose professional help for them. It can simply serve to set in stone that this is such a huge problem that not even the adults the child has absolute trust in (the parents) can deal with it. We are defining it as a ‘problem’ to be ‘fixed’ when in reality grief is a process that needs to take its course, and the pressure to talk it through may serve only to keep a child stuck in that place feeling ever more helpless.
I have heard stories of children who have suffered unimaginable trauma who have, as adults, defined the ‘therapy’ as worse and more damaging than the trauma itself, and that the focus on and pressure to relive the original event was unbearable.
That’s not to say that every child will experience the same thing but it should give us pause for thought before jumping in.
A child’s pain is unbearable to witness for a parent and maybe it’s our own pain we need to be managing rather than our child’s. At a time when a child is going through painful feelings of their own, they do not need us to get down in there with them, but to stand strong outside, available and willing to listen when needed, but otherwise looking outward to the future and the good things in life.
They are not strong so they need us to be, like an oak tree standing in a storm rather than a sapling being blown all over the place (at least as much as possible, the occasional being blown off-course won’t do any harm).
If we can accept that it will naturally take time for our child to fully recover but nurture our own absolute confidence in them that they will, we are sending the message ‘You had a tough experience, you naturally feel really bad sometimes, but I know you’ll get through this because you are bigger than your feelings, your feelings are not bigger than you.’
The challenge for parents is in modelling how to deal with pain by the way they manage their own painful feelings about their child’s experience.
There is no reason why a child with a loving family around them can’t come through a distressing event, and some of the results of the experience may be positive ones – developing more compassion for others for example. They also develop an inner knowing that they can survive devastating experiences and come out the other side, something that ‘luckier’ children don’t yet know. Most of the long-lasting harm we hear about from the old-fashioned approach comes not from the trauma itself but from the fact that it was silenced.
There is a third way of helping your child with grief which is in allowing it to be expressed when your child needs to, listening and acknowledging it but without focusing on it continually; and accepting that it will be there for a while. You are at the start of the road to recovery and it may be a bumpy one but by refusing to define your child as a victim you are communicating absolute trust that they will get better. And they will: that confident happy child you have ‘lost’ will come back.