After recent natural disasters in Texas and Florida, many parents may be wondering how to best support their children through these traumatic events. In addition to the advice below, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has resources on supporting children, parents, and other caregivers after natural disasters, along with some specific resources to support children in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. While there are no guarantees in life to completely protect our children from difficult events and the grief that comes with it, we can be there to support them through the challenging times. Libby Nealis from the School Social Work Association of America has some advice for parents and caregivers on how to do this.
While grief is an emotion that all of us experience at times in our lives, grieving children are vastly overlooked by society at large and schools in particular. Research from the American Federation of Teachers (2012) shows that seven out of 10 teachers have a student affected by loss in their classroom. Yet too often, schools are unable to properly support grieving students. The challenges of addressing a child's grief may become uncomfortable for school personnel (or any adult) who is not trained to provide an appropriate response. Often, school personnel and other adults assume a hands-off approach is better and may not recognize the need for their involvement. It is vitally important to recognize the powerful effects of grief on a child’s social, emotional, and academic well-being. Children, like adults, need time and space to process grief, but may have a more limited understanding of death and their own response. Grief can seriously impact learning, manifesting itself in decreased academic performance, social withdrawal, and behavioral problems (National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, 2014). Students need to know they have a social network in their school and community to support them, including both caring friends and adults with whom they can share and help process their grief.
The challenges associated with grief can lead to missed school days, a loss of concentration, and falling behind in school work. A compassionate response and a supportive environment can go a long way in preventing long-term damage to the student’s educational progress and enhancing their social and emotional well-being. In fact, one of the top indicators of how well children will respond after the death of a significant person in their lives is the type of relationship they have with caring adults, and how well these adults cope with their own grief. Schools, families, and peers can play a critical role in the grief journey of children and serve as a source of support and stability during this difficult time.
Parents - Things to remember
There may be a roller coaster of emotions. Children often feel guilty after a death has occurred. Children of all ages, as well as adults, often wonder what they did, didn’t do, or should have done that would have prevented the death. This may happen even when there is no logical reason to feel this way. Children may also feel guilty for surviving the death of a sibling. They may feel guilty if they are having fun or not feeling very sad after a family member has died. Children are often reluctant to share their guilt feelings. Reassure your children that they are not responsible for the death, even if there is no reason to suspect they feel guilty.
Children may appear selfish and immature after a personal loss. Children tend to be most concerned with things that affect them personally. As they struggle to deal with a personal loss, they may appear more self-centered and immature than usual. They may become more demanding, refuse to share, or pick fights with family members. They may say things that seem very selfish or uncaring. This selfishness is not a sign that children don’t care about the person who died or the needs of others. Rather, it demonstrates that they are under stress and grieving. Show your concern and continue to provide support. Avoid criticizing them for behaviors that seem self-centered or insensitive. Once they feel their needs are being met, they will be able to think more about the needs of others.
Parents should also remember that their children may be worried about them, and are looking to them for guidance on how to cope. If the entire family is dealing with grief, it is important to understand members will experience this grief in different ways and at different times. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has resources available to better equip parents and family members with needed information and advice along the way.
Transitions can be particularly challenging. The change in structured schedules during the summer, and then again, going back to school can make dealing with grief particularly challenging for kids. Most children are likely to experience at least some temporary learning challenges after the death of a close family member or friend. Help the family plan a timely return to school. Speak to school personnel and keep them aware of your child’s situation and let them know you have concerns. Together you can help prepare the student, their classmates (as appropriate), and school personnel for the student’s return. Are there strategies that you think will be helpful for school personnel in providing support over time? As a parent, you can provide the most useful insight about what is, and is not, likely to work with your child.
Use your school community. Schools provide structure and reassuring routines as well as responsive and supportive relationships. Caring, trusted adults and qualified school-based professionals can support students in times of need and refer them for more intensive services if necessary. A connection to school is one of the most significant protective factors in children’s lives, helping them develop resilience – or an ability to cope with stress. A child’s positive connections to people in school, both adults and peers, can help promote resilience. The school’s ongoing communication with families becomes even more critical to help parents take steps to support their children’s learning and participation in school after a death has occurred. School staff, such as the school social worker, may proactively reach out to families of grieving students in order to both provide and seek information, to offer advice and assistance, and to partner with them to provide support to students over time.
Anticipate triggers. Triggers are sudden reminders of the person who died that cause powerful emotional responses and can be unsettling for grieving students. Often, by anticipating triggers, parents and educators can help minimize their effect. Parents can help identify potential trigger situations for their children (significant dates, holidays, upcoming transitions) and help the school better support your child —academically and emotionally —by providing useful information and valuable insight.
It’s natural for grief to remain over time. Grief proceeds on its own terms. Grief does not end at a fixed point. In many ways, children never get over a significant loss. It is a life-changing event. As children grow and develop, normal transitions and changes in their lives will remind them of their loss. A boy in elementary school whose father died may miss him acutely years later as he enters puberty. A girl navigating the new social intricacies of high school may wish more than ever for the guidance and advice of her mother who died several years prior. As grieving children see peers enjoying support from families, they may feel their loss deeply, even years after the death occurred.
As children develop, they become more capable of understanding and adjusting to their loss. As time passes, the work of grieving becomes less difficult and requires less energy. It begins as a full-time job, but becomes more of a part-time effort that allows other meaningful experiences to occur. Grieving lasts a lifetime, but it does not need to consume a life.
Welcome, accept and encourage support. Allow your school and community to support your children and family over time. Be open to suggestions and offers for supportive resources in the school and community that may be of help to everyone in the family (mental health professionals, bereavement support groups). Check in with your pediatrician or other health-care provider for guidance over time. And don’t hesitate to let the school know if you anticipate potential challenges. The school social worker can help families with practical supports such as transportation or childcare. While it may be difficult to receive assistance, the school doors should remain open, should the family become ready at a later time.
SSWAA is proud to contribute to developing best practices for our members and the education community. SSWAA urges members to utilizethese materials and be a strong advocate for grieving students and their families. See www.sswaa.org for more information.
The Coalition for Grieving Students works in partnership with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, led by pediatrician and childhood bereavement expert Dr. David Schonfeld. The work of this group is underwritten by the New York Life Foundation, a pioneering advocate for the cause of childhood bereavement.