Handling the loss of a loved one is difficult for adults let alone kids. Helping your kids understand what has happened, and why, is not an easy task. The best thing to do is to be honest and take time with your kids to explain what has happened, then be there for them when they have more questions. Dr. Prakash Massand, CEO of Global Medical Education (GME), an online medical education resource that provides timely, unbiased, evidence-based medical education and advice, and a faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, says while these conversations can be difficult, they are necessary for the mental health and well- being of your children. His advice to make it easier for parents:
- Ask questions and be supportive – Never assume your child fully understands tragic events. Children have wild imaginations and have a hard time sorting their emotions out during a tragedy. Ask direct questions like, “what are you feeling” and “what’s bothering you” to fully understand what’s going through their mind. Never ridicule or make fun of a child’s feelings and always offer support.
- Encourage children to express feelings – This can be done through talking, drawing, playing or whatever means makes the child more comfortable.
- Honesty pays – explain to your children that although the loss of someone so young is rare, unfortunately it does happen from time to time.
- Remain calm – Children love to mimic the behaviors of their parents. The way adults react to events is often the way the child perceives and reacts to the event so try and stay calm.
- Maintain a child’s routine – After a traumatic event, stick to your child’s normal routine. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, eat meals at the same time, and engage in every activity you usually do. Ignoring a child’s routine after tragedy will make him or her feel more anxious.
- Reinforce a sense of security – Over the next few days, spend a little extra time with your child to reinforce feelings of safety and security.
- Recognize a real phobia vs. a simple fear – Most children are afraid of one thing or another and most of them outgrow these simple fears. When a child has a real phobia, you want to look for signs of obsessive behaviors and thoughts, avoidance behaviors, recurring dreams/nightmares and being unable to become excited about something that should be fun. This is when parents should consider professional help.