How Teens Grieve, & How to Help Them

Lost and aloneOur teenagers get to deal, again, with issues we hoped they wouldn’t see until they were adults–sudden trauma, injury, and death. Teenagers are different, and parents need to know how to help them.

Most of us have heard about the 5 stages of grief that adults travel through, from denial to acceptance. The teenage brain is very different than the adult brain, and these stages don’t necessarily fit. Their journey through shock and grief is more individual and variable, with side trips and dangerous pitfalls.

Unfortunately, they sometimes travel this journey alone, as their parents are themselves derailed by shock and grief.

They travel it when their brains are in transition, when their impulse control is slim and they have trouble seeing into the future, where the consequences of their actions reside.

They choose their path at a time when they are struggling to achieve independence from their parents and control over their own lives, and they feel the need to find their own identity and act.

They will need watching.

Our children do not expect to have to deal with grief, so the first, most common reaction is shock, and then denial. But the teenaged brain is not the adult brain. They do not travel a straight path from there through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as an adult might.

Some of Those Side Paths:

  • They can feel excited to be in a real life drama, and enjoy being the center of attention. Then they feel guilty because they were excited and, for a moment, happy.
  • They can feel like it was their fault: they just said those horrible things the other day! The shooting happened because they wished it! They didn’t mean it! Children are not always rational.
  • They can explode or become agressive, unable to control the powerful, overwhelming emotions churning inside them. Adults know that they will feel better in time; children live in the now, with no hope of feeling better.
  • When the excitement fades, they may do things to rekindle the show. Maybe if I drink too much or swallow some pills I will be the center of attention again? Maybe my parents will notice something other than their own grief? And why be good anyway if all it gets you is pain?
  • They can sometimes become fascinated with death–in it they see the solution to all of their own problems. Could they be strong enough, or brave enough, to end their own lives? They might try some exciting, near death “games” just to see how it feels, or to test themselves. Death is contagious.
  • They frequently feel isolated and alone. Their grief cuts them off from others, making them different right at the age when they most want to fit in. They may refuse to admit they hurt at all because they don’t want to be different, or seen as weak.
  • They may feel the need to do something to help the situation. Their parents are suffering; maybe if they lock down their own grief they can fix everything, make their parents feel better?

Many of these side paths are not likely to give you the happy, healthy child you desire.

What is a parent to do?

First, pay attention. Don’t assume they are fine – poke into their business and bother them. Hang out in their space. Sooner or later they will talk. Listen. They will have crazy ideas that make no sense, and unexpected questions that you thought they already knew the answers to. Take them seriously and answer them honestly. Never lie, because they need to be able to trust you. There is no need to pretend you know all the answers, just let them know that they are not ever alone.

Whatever path through grief that they choose is normal, and different than any other path trod before, by anyone. Often teenagers will grieve in bits and pieces, and seem better in between. Unexpectedly, something will trigger a wave of grief that will overwhelm them. A wrong word, a food, a smell, some anniversary – grief will knock their knees out from under them. Normal adolescent emotional swings will be exaggerated. They will get headaches and stomach aches, they will feel exhausted, or they will act out or withdraw. Grades may plummet either as a way of acting out or because they cannot concentrate. They may not sleep, or they may sleep too much. Any of these are normal.

Try to keep to routines and a normal life as much as possible. Expect decent behavior: enforce all the usual rules because safety and security reside in what is known and routine. Allow the grief. Remember the person you grieve over in whatever way helps your child: pray, write in a journal, paint a picture… Talk about times spent with them. Share your own experiences with grief and loss. Let them help in any way they can with any arrangements that need to be made – people feel better when they are busy and have accomplished something.

Be there when they need you, give them the opportunity to grieve, and watch them for behaviors that are more destructive than helpful. Grief never ends, but it evolves into a more acceptable form, and people can learn to live their lives and think about something else.

If you or your child need help to get there, ask. There is help available at the end of a phone call if you are having trouble navigating through on your own. There are many of us whose life work is to be there to help when there is need.

 

How to Help Children in the Aftermath of Hurricane

Sad child on black background. Portrait depression girlWe try to protect our children from as much as we can, but sometimes life has other plans.

Hurricanes in Texas, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Florida have taken over our thoughts, our conversations at home and with friends, the internet, and the television waves. Our children are being bombarded by terrifying pictures on TV, anxious conversations with friends, and worried parents at home. It can be too much for a child to deal with.

Your child’s experience of an event will vary depending on their age,  personal style,  life experience, and  closeness to the disaster. A toddler will only care that his or her parents seem to be upset. Older children will hurt for the people involved, worry about friends and relatives that might be in the areas, and worry that such a thing is possible and could happen to them sometime.

Anxiety can worsen at night: what seems exciting to discuss with friends during the day becomes frightening after the lights go off.

What to Do?

Listen to them talk, and be patient when they ask you the same questions over and over. Reassure them, let them know that such things are extremely rare. Answer questions truthfully, at their developmental level. Never lie.

Monitor what your child sees and hears–adult conversation and the media can magnify fear and confusion and increase their trauma. Repetition can intensify anxiety; pictures can get locked in their heads.

After the storms pass symptoms of post-traumatic stress may appear, even in children not directly involved. They may be sad or moody, easily angered or irritable. They may be afraid to leave home and separate from family. They may have trouble sleeping or sleep too much. Appetites may suffer. Your child may be anxious when his or her people are not all nearby, and wake from nightmares.

Children frequently have concentration problems after a trauma, and their grades may suffer. They can regress developmentally: your independent youngsters may become clingy, or need help doing things they had been previously been able to do on their own. They may avoid activities they previously enjoyed, and withdraw into themselves. They may become anxious at the thought of going to school, or of being separated from mom or dad.

They can also develop physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. They may try to exercise more control on their environment, setting up their toys in a particular way, wanting their schedule to be predictable, or demanding activities they find reassuring. Teens may act out or try alcohol or drugs in an attempt to feel better.

Helping them may be as simple as listening. Be available and receptive but don’t push. A younger child may open up and tell you his story when you break out toys or art supplies; an older one may talk if you tell her a similar story about yourself, when you were scared or worried. Schedule time for just the two of you, and wait.

Children may try to hide their symptoms: they think they should be stronger, they don’t want to be a burden, or they think they are abnormal for having the problem. They may even feel that the disaster was their fault; children are not always logical. Allowing them to bury their symptoms will only erode their spirit from the inside.

Also, be a good example. Take care of yourself, eat healthy food, sleep, and discuss events calmly. Turn off the TV and stay off the web. Exercise. Take breaks to play, read a book, and do something unrelated to it.

Keep to recognizable routines–routine is reassuring and safe. Require reasonable behavior: if they still get in trouble for using that bad word, they will feel more secure. They may test you with bad behavior just to get that reassurance. Don’t spoil them with extra treats, because it will frighten them. Things must be really bad if The Parent gives me toys or lets me eat candy.

Lend a hand to other people; even if you are not in the area you can send a donation or give blood. Let them know that you are doing it. It helps to know that you have the power to help and comfort.

The traumatic symptoms may last quite a while. Triggers like another storm season or a news report may bring everything back. Fear of loss may linger. An anniversary will renew their anxiety.

If time passes and stress is affecting their lives, think about having them see a counselor or getting them into a peer group with similar concerns. We all need a little help sometimes.

My mom also used to say, “Time heals all wounds.” And–with a little help from their parents–it always will.

How to Help Teenagers with Grief

CinemaUsher-01Our teenagers get to deal, today, with issues we hoped they wouldn’t see until they were adults–sudden trauma, injury, and grief. Teenagers are different, and you need to know how to help them. When you have a moment, here are some tips:

We have all heard about the 5 stages of grief that adults travel through, from denial to acceptance. The teenage brain is very different than the adult brain, and these stages don’t necessarily fit. Their journey through shock and grief is more individual and variable, with side trips and dangerous pitfalls.

Unfortunately, they sometimes travel this journey alone, as their parents are themselves derailed by shock and grief.

They travel it when their brains are in transition, when their impulse control is slim and they have trouble seeing very far into the future, where the consequences of their actions reside.

They choose their path at a time when they are struggling to achieve independence from their parents and control over their own lives, and they feel the need to find their own identity and act.

They will need watching.

Our children do not expect to have to deal with grief, so the first, most common reaction is shock, and then denial. But the teenaged brain is not the adult brain. They do not travel a straight path from there through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as an adult might.

They can go down a side path into the excitement of being in a real life drama, and enjoyment of being the center of attention. Then they feel guilty because they were excited and, for a moment, happy.

They can feel like it was their fault: they just said those horrible things about this kid the other day! The accident happened because they wished it on him or her! They didn’t mean it!

Children are not always rational.

They can explode or become agressive, unable to control the powerful, overwhelming emotions churning inside them. Adults know that they will feel better in time; children live in the now, with no hope of feeling better.

When the excitement fades, they may do things to rekindle the show. Maybe if I drink too much or swallow some pills I will be the center of attention again? Maybe my parents will notice something other than their own grief? And why be good anyway if all it gets you is pain?

They can sometimes become fascinated with death–in it they see the solution to all of their own problems. Could they be strong enough, or brave enough, to end their own lives? They might try some exciting, near death “games” just to see how it feels, or to test themselves. Trauma is contagious.

They frequently feel isolated and alone. Their grief cuts them off from others, making them different right at the age when they most want to fit in. They may refuse to admit they hurt at all because they don’t want to be different, or seen as weak.

They may feel the need to do something to help the situation. Their parents are suffering; maybe if they lock down their own grief they can fix everything, make their parents feel better?

Many of these side paths are not likely to give you the happy, healthy child you desire.

So what is a parent to do?

First, pay attention. Don’t assume they are fine – poke into their business and bother them. Hang out in their space. Sooner or later they will talk. Listen. They will have crazy ideas that make no sense, and unexpected questions that you thought they already knew the answers to. Take them seriously and answer them honestly. Never lie, because they need to be able to trust you. There is no need to pretend you know all the answers. Let them know that they are not ever alone.

Whatever path through grief that they choose is normal, and different than any other path trod before, by anyone. Often teenagers will grieve in bits and pieces, and seem better in between. Unexpectedly, something will trigger a wave of grief that will overwhelm them. A wrong word, a food, a smell, some anniversary – grief will knock their knees out from under them. Normal adolescent emotional swings will be exaggerated. They will get headaches and stomach aches, they will feel exhausted, or they will act out or withdraw. Grades may plummet either as a way of acting out or because they cannot concentrate. They may not sleep, or they may sleep too much. Any of these are normal.

Try to keep to routines and a normal life as much as possible. Expect decent behavior: enforce all the usual rules because safety and security reside in what is known and routine. Allow the grief. Remember the person you grieve over in whatever way helps your child: pray, write in a journal, paint a picture… Talk about times spent with them. Share your own experiences with grief and loss. Let them help in any way they can with any arrangements that need to be made – people feel better when they are busy and have accomplished something.

Be there when they need you, give them the opportunity to grieve, and watch them for behaviors that are more destructive than helpful. Grief never ends, but it evolves into a more acceptable form, and people can learn to live their lives and think about something else.

If you or your child need help to get there, ask. There is help available at the end of a phone call if you are having trouble navigating through on your own. There are many of us whose life work is to be there to help when there is need.

The Blogger's Pit Stop

How to Use Mindfulness to Help Your Child

boy with baloon2-01Mindfulness has become mainstream. The InnerKids Foundation in LA has been teaching mindfulness to inner city kids since 2001. The Goldie Hawn Foundation sponsors a program called MindUp that has trained thousands of teachers. In all likelihood, mindfulness is coming to a school near you, with very good reason. Mindfulness works.

MindUP has shown a 90% increase in children’s ability to get along with other children; an 80% increase in optimism; and a 75% improvement in planning, organizational skills, and  impulse control when kids practice. Several studies have shown that mindfulness practice brings a sense of well being and decrease in stress.

Our world has gone crazy, and our children are having problems with anxiety, stress, depression, and the resultant physical symptoms: stomach aches, headaches, and chronic tiredness. Anxious, stressed out kids build stories in their minds that circle, grow, and separate them from what is real and manageable. Mindfulness can help.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a meditation practice that we in the west have stolen from the Buddhists and warped to our own purposes. Through mindfulness practice a child can achieve a state of mind where they aware, focused on the present, and calmly accepting of  themselves and the world around them, without judgement.

Does this not sound like exactly what we want for our kids? Kids who learn to practice mindfulness have in their arsenal a tool that will help them deal with anxiety, stress, impulsiveness, and any number of damaging emotions–with no side effects and at the bargain price of free. No need to join a religion, and anyone can learn it.

How do we do it?

There are many internet sites that can lead you through mindfulness practice with your kids. I particularly like Renee Jain, MAPP, but there are many out there. There is even an iPhone app! The basics are really very simple:

  • First and most important, do it with your child.
  • Find a peaceful, quiet place, sit comfortably (the crossed leg/hands on knee thing is optional).
  • Focus on awareness of one thing.
  • Notice that thing–a sight, or sound, or feeling-any one thing.
  • Acknowledge that thing, then let the thought drift away, without judgement.

Babies are naturals at mindfulness. Stick mushed peaches in their mouths and they will taste them, look at them on their hands, rub them all over their faces, and smell them. They are in the moment and focused on those peaches. We can learn a lot from babies.

Older kids need to be brought back to that sort of focus. Sit with them in a quiet, comfortable place, and guide them to think about one thing. Use something they can hear (a bell or a shaker?) or taste, or smell. Teach them to notice that thing, then let that notice float away. Be aware and focused, but don’t try to conclude anything about what they are focused on and don’t pass judgement. Just hear, or see, or smell-and then let it go.

As kids get older, they can learn more traditional meditation techniques: breath coming into and going out, awareness of their bodies and of passing thoughts, and letting go so that they can be in the next moment, without attachment to what is passed and gone.

There is no one right way to meditate: the point is to be peaceful and live, for that time, in the present without attachment and without judgement. People meditate by arranging sand, by doing yoga, by coloring, by going fishing–whatever works for you and your child.

Why practice mindfulness?

Meditation can teach kids how to break the spiraling cycle of anxiety; how to develop a more positive and optimistic viewpoint; how to live without pronouncing judgement on everything they encounter, and on themselves. It can help them feel better about themselves and learn to regulate their emotions and impulses.

Imagine your child coming home stressed because someone was mean, they have too much homework, or they are last picked for a team. Imagine if they could find a quiet place, trace that stress to its origin, transform it into a color or a breeze in their minds– and let it go.

Better than sitting, stewing in the stress, and letting it spiral and grow until it takes over their evening, yes?

Create a habit of daily meditation.

Take a few minutes every evening and make meditation a routine–maybe right before homework or bed? Reward them for practicing with a hug or a few minutes more of your time, as you reward any behavior of which you want to see more.

Mindfulness is a skill, like riding a bike. If your child practices every day, when he or she needs it they won’t have to think about how to get their feet onto the pedals and make the bike roll forward. It will just be there for them.

Mindfulness works. Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve kids’ coping skills and their sense of well being. It can improve memory and learning by teaching them to pay attention and focus. It can teach them to be aware of their feelings, accept them, and then let them go, so that they can make wise decisions with their minds rather than poor ones based on overwhelming emotions. They can learn to self regulate and control their own emotions and actions.

Give it a try. Everyone can use a few minutes of peace in their day.

DomesticatedMomster
The Blogger's Pit Stop

Che, Che, Che, Changes… and Children

Change- just aheadBack-to-school season is the perfect time to think about how change impacts children, how to help them through it, and the positives that come when kids learn to be flexible and resilient.

Humanity is naturally comfortable with routine. We are confident in our ability to get through the day when we have done it all before. We are secure, and safe. We don’t have to particularly think about anything. To varying degrees, we all like to know what to expect–whole books are written about it!

This need for routine and stability is far more pronounced in a child. A toddler has no real sense of time–they live in the moment, and the future is a complete unknown. Older kids may have a better sense of time, but surprises can still incite strong emotion. Teens have so many changes going on already that seemingly small transitions can make them feel overwhelmed and out of control.

Yet change is inevitable, and the pace of change increases every day.  Parents today change jobs and geography more than did any previous generation; divorce is more common; the 24 hour cycle flings news at us continuously from around the planet.

Improvements in technology and rapid changes in our cultures remake our world the minute we turn our backs. So…

How to help children cope with change:

  • Be a good example. If you take things in stride and don’t appear worried or scared, they will imitate your reaction.
  • Build strong relationships. If they know they are loved and secure, a move or loss will not be so overwhelming.
  • Stay Healthy. Eat nutritious food, exercise, and get enough sleep. Everything is easier to deal with if you feel good and are not tired.
  • Warn them that change is coming. Imagine if even something as wonderful as Christmas happened without advance warning. There’s a tree in the living room, Dad is dressed up in a crazy suit, everyone is excited, and all the normal routines are suspended. Scary stuff! Let them know what is coming, and give them time to process.
  • Explain what is happening, and why it is happening, at their developmental level. Answer their questions. Give them information about the changes that are coming, and explore the possibilities. Imagine the good things that could happen as a result of the change as well as the bad and scary stuff.
  • Keep to routines when you can. Morning regimens, family meals, and bedtime routines are the foundation of a good day. Nothing feels safer than snuggling up with someone who loves you and a bedtime story.
  • Allow them their feelings. Don’t discount them. If the thing they are angry about the most with Grandma’s death is that no one will give them Tootsie Rolls anymore, nod solemnly and say you understand.
  • Expect bad behavior. Kids will regress with transitions, and will act out if they feel insecure. Discipline them in exactly the same way you would have before the change, because if they get away with bad behavior it will heighten their anxiety. If they still get a time out for saying that bad word, then things must not be that different. Bad behavior successfully disciplined establishes new borders and validates their security.
  • Let them have an impact on the change. Let them choose some flowers for an event, or the color of their new room for a move. Humans feel better when they have done something, no matter how small. Action shrinks fear.
  • Carve out time every day for a little one-on-one. ‘Nuf said.
  • Allow time for relaxation and fun. Laugh. Listen to music. Renee Jain, MAPP has a few excellent mindfulness activities for children here. I especially like her practice of “dissolving a thought.” Kids can devolve into what is called catastrophic thinking and spiral downward into a place where nothing is right with the world, and nothing ever will be. Mindfulness practice can stop that spiral and bring them back into the moment.
  • Avoid activities that increase stress, like competitive sports or games. This is not the time to play Monopoly. Simplify your schedule, and let things go.

Change is inevitable; learning to deal with it is a necessary skill. Kids who can adapt to new situations are better at everything from learning vocabulary to making friends to succeeding in the workplace.  Being able to manage your emotional responce to change is part of being a grownup. Knowing when to accept change and when to insist that you have an impact creates a fulfilling life. Last, seeing the good that can come from a transition is how you grab an opportunity.

The ability to adapt is one of the things that made humans special since we first started using that opposable thumb. Encourage your kids to learn it.

 

Domesticated Momster

 

The Blogger's Pit Stop