Illness and loss are hard enough for adults to get through but how do you guide children through these tough times − especially during the holiday season?
Communicating About Uncertainty: Difficult Conversations was the theme of a recent conference at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Understanding a child’s developmental stages can be the first step in bridging the communication gap, according to conference speaker Rose Resler, director of the child life specialist program at the University of Akron.
“Infants from birth to 12 months learn from their senses, and consistent routines,” Rose said. “They can sense when parents are upset and it’s best to keep some sort of regular routine with them.”
Helping toddlers cope
Toddlers, ages 1 to 3, understand more words than they can voice and tend to take things literally. They are also beginning to understand body parts but often connect them to their own experience.
Rose shared the story of parents trying to explain to their 4 year old about his sibling’s severe kidney problem. Their son asked, “Is the kidney a kid’s knee?”
According to Rose, mimicking other family member’s behaviors allows toddlers to gain self-control. Giving them a task such as feeding their doll or showing empathy to a parent helps them gain control.
Helping pre-schoolers cope
Pre-schoolers, ages 3 to 5, show ‘magical thinking,’ and believe that wishing might make something happen. Rose advises parents to ask them what they wish for and then guide them toward more realistic thinking.
At this age, they are egocentric, increasing their independence. This is also the age they often use toys as symbols to master stressful family situations.
“I asked one boy I worked with if he understood his mom’s cancer diagnosis,” Rose said. “He replied that it was like a monster truck.”
Children at this age also don’t see death as permanent and may confuse death with sleeping or punishment for wrong doing, according to Rose.
Helping school-age kids cope
Children ages 5-11 are more interested in social and academic interactions. They’re more independent and want to be involved and contribute to the family’s situation.
Their peers are very important and parents can help them with the simple explanations to their friends, such as, “Something is going wrong with my baby sister.”
At this age, children need to feel part of the family’s journey and parents can help with daily briefings. One good place to do this is in the car, according to Rose, because face-to-face communications may be more stressful.
Helping teens cope
Teens start to think abstractly but have difficulty expressing their feelings. Rose advises parents to avoid pushing their teenager to visit a sick sibling against their objections.
“Coping strategies for kids of all ages include letting children problem-solve and express their own feelings,” she said. “Give kids information on what to expect and if you don’t have all the information, tell them this is the most we know right now.”
Talking about death
When it comes to talking about death, children ages 5 to 7 understand that death happens but tend to think it’s reversible.
By ages 7 to 9, they see that death is permanent, but not for them or those they know.
Finally, by ages 9 to 11 they understand that death is irreversible and inevitable.
Akron Children’s offers a grief support group series called Good Mourning to help families deal with loss.
Nancy Carst, the program leader and social worker for Akron Children’s palliative care program, describes Good Mourning as an activity-based program for children ages 5 to 18 who have experienced the loss of a family member.
“Kids experience loss differently than adults,” said Nancy. “They respond so much better when they can act out their grief through art or play.”
During the meetings, trained Akron Children’s and community professionals lead age-appropriate activities while discussing topics such as death, the funeral/memorial service, feelings and moving on.
The next Good Mourning series at Akron Children’s will be Feb. 14 – March 2, 2017, and April 18 – 23, 2017.