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Christie-Tabron: how to support children through grief as Domestic Violence Awareness Month unfolds

photo of domestic violence advocate
Jenna Christie-Tabron, pictured above, is the Free Arts For Abused Children Clinical director. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress)
By Jenna Christie-Tabron | Point of View

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and research shows 30% of children exposed to intimate partner violence had their first exposure before the age of two. An additional 26% had their first exposure between the ages of two and seven.

Valley nonprofit Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona works with children who have experienced ongoing trauma and toxic stress putting them at a greater risk for long-term outcomes including substance abuse, prolonged poverty, and early death.

However, research shows that children build resilience when they engage in positive experiences and have support from caring adults.

Free Arts uses the arts to provide safe, positive opportunities for children to engage with trained, trauma-informed volunteer mentors. If you know a child experiencing grief, here are 10 ways you can support them:

  • Be open to conversation. Seeing a child grieve can be particularly challenging, and to cope it is common for adults to avoid the topic of death to prevent further upsetting the child. However, refusing to talk about the process of death can have long-term consequences such as unresolved grief and undeveloped coping skills when faced with loss in the future. Therefore, it is important to give a child space and opportunities to talk about their feelings. Doing so will help them to establish a sense of safety to explore their complex emotions. It can also be helpful to discuss your own experiences with loss and grief. During stressful times of grief, being able to relate to a child’s feelings can strengthen current connections and increase the ability to cope.
  • The cycle of grief. Grief can take on multiple forms; it is important for children to know that whether they feel angry, sad, or afraid, it is normal. Adults should also know that grief is not linear. Children can go through the various “stages” of grief multiple times as they process the experience. During this time, it is important to remain supportive and allow them to feel their emotions.
  • Discuss expectations. Following the loss of a loved one, a child may experience uncertainty about what is to come. You can ease their fears and concerns by talking to them about the changes they will observe and experience. For example, if the deceased loved one used to pick the child up from school, letting them know who will take over that duty can reduce anxiety. Additionally, if it is age-appropriate, informing children about final arrangements will help to prepare them for the immediate events to come.
  • Managing complex emotions. Anger, guilt, and regret are common feelings after loss that are harder to navigate. If the child is feeling angry, it is important to allow them to feel their emotion while encouraging them to express it constructively. For example, a child may want to throw objects to express their anger; however, it is critical for you to place limits on what is acceptable behavior. In this instance, it may be helpful to ask them to produce an alternative behavior that does not involve damaging an item, because children are more likely to comply if they produce their own solutions. Also, children may express feelings of guilt or regret for past actions or unspoken words. You can help them work through those feelings by suggesting activities such as writing a letter to their loved one or drawing through their feelings. It is also common for children to complain of physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches when experiencing high stress or anxiety. This can be a suitable time to check in with the child and discuss their emotions around the loss as the child could be grieving silently.
  • Use appropriate and direct language. Family members often use mild euphemisms to explain death. However, it is advised to be direct when speaking to children because they interpret messages literally. A common example of this is telling a child that their loved one is “only sleeping.” Saying this can inadvertently cause the child to develop a fear of naps or bedtime. Instead, it is more effective to explain the biological process in simple terms (e.g., their heart has stopped beating). Doing this may lead to more questions, but direct and honest answers will help children to process their grief than understating the facts. It’s also important to avoid phrases, such as “don’t cry” or “they wouldn’t want you to cry or be sad.” Such phrases teach children to suppress their emotions instead of grieving in a healthy way.
  • Routines. Keeping established routines will help children to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout the grief process. Constant changes may increase anxiety and stress levels which in turn makes the grief process more difficult to manage. In situations where significant changes to the routine are completely inevitable, it is important for children to be included in the planning process, if possible, as it can be helpful for the child to know their feelings and desires are being considered.
  • Model coping skills. Knowing healthy ways to grieve and cope begins with observing those closest to us. Even when you do not have the words to say in that moment, you are teaching healthy grieving and coping through your actions.
  • Engage in coping strategies. Sometimes an open conversation is not possible or appropriate given multiple factors. However, there are other ways to support children during intense moments in the grief process: a) engaging in art activities such as painting or drawing help children process their feelings when they are unable or unwilling to verbalize their emotions, b) practice deep breathing, c) encourage journaling, d) engage in religious or spiritual practices, e) create a scrapbook or memory book, f) listen to music, g) go for a walk, or h) engage in non-directive play (letting the child choose what to play with).
  • Continuous grieving. One of the most overlooked components of supporting children through grief is recognizing that they can mourn the same loss at various stages in their lives. For example, if a young girl loses her mother while in kindergarten, not only will she mourn the loss in the moment, but also, she can mourn again when she graduates from high school and realizes that her mother is not present to witness her accomplishment. Through developmental changes and special occasions, the reminder of the absence of a loved one can reignite the grief process. Therefore, it is important to offer appropriate support for children early on as these strategies will help to set the foundation for healthy coping over time.
  • Engage in self-care. Remember to take care of yourself throughout the grief process. By ensuring that you take care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, you can provide the necessary support to any child going through the process.

When the loss is incredibly significant, some children may state that they wish to die to be with their loved one. This is commonly heard when the deceased was the child’s caregiver. In most cases, these feelings pass and are not a sign of suicidal ideation. However, if you are ever concerned about how a child is processing grief, please seek help from a mental health professional.

Editor’s note: Jenna Christie-Tabron is the Free Arts Clinical director and mental health clinician who has dedicated her career to helping children and adolescents achieve their highest potential.

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