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Helping Children Deal With Major Life Events

While all parents work to protect their children from stress or difficult experiences, we also know that major life events happen regardless. These big life events may include the death of a loved one, separation or divorce, serious illness in the family, adoption, moving to a new home, separation from a parent due to deployment, loss of parental employment or serious family financial problems.

For children, starting a new school or making the transition to adulthood is a big event too. Larger traumatic events in our community also impact our children. When these events happen, parents not only have to cope but also model for their children how to respond and move forward. We can respond to these major life events in effective ways that help children cope in the short term and build resilience in the long term. These four tips will get you started.

Your responses to the events of life are more important than the events themselves.

Virginia Satir  

1. Communicate openly, honestly and appropriately.

For example, when someone in the family has died or faces a serious illness, take time to explain the circumstances to the child in clear, basic terms. Some children may not understand terms such as “passed away” when someone has died. Share difficult information in a calm, quiet setting. Let the child know that you have something difficult or sad to tell them. Tell them the basics initially and then wait. Observe how the child responds and gauge their level of understanding. Children process difficult information in unique ways, and their questions will clue you into their thinking. In a difficult situation, let the child know you will be there for them and that they can count on you even in this difficult time. Let them know what you are doing to cope, as well as next steps and plans.    

2. Decide what information to share.

This is especially important when the adults must ultimately solve the current issue or challenges. Children can pick up on if they are being misled or information about a difficult situation does not make sense. An alternative is to share limited but factual information about the life event, and let the child know that you have a plan to cope with or address the issue. Hiding key information from children will increase their anxiety and reduce their coping skills. In the case of changes such as moving to a new home or a change of parental employment, let children know the reasons for the change and if there are any positive changes to expect along with the disruption. For parents who must leave for extended periods, identify which adults the child can rely on during this period and how the parent will maintain contact with the child.   

little girl with Down syndrome laughing with parents

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3. Find meaning in times of loss.

Doing things that build a sense of purpose or help others will aid in a child’s understanding and recovery. When children write letters to a relative facing a serious illness or offer to help a neighbor who has been injured or lost a job, they build their own sense of identity as someone who can cope and believes in working together to face challenges.

When faced with difficult life events, parents can strive to build a culture of resiliency in their family and let children know, through their actions and words, that people can overcome serious challenges by marshaling their resources, working together and seeking out help. During major events that take place in a community, such as a fire where people have lost their home, a natural disaster or the current pandemic, parents can help children find meaning and resilience by joining with them to help others. When parents and children perform acts of service together, they send a long-lasting message that, when adversity strikes, people can cope, contribute and thrive. 

4. Inform other adults in the child’s life about current difficulties.

Take time to let the child’s teachers, daycare providers, sports coaches, religious leaders and trusted friends and neighbors know that your family is going through a hard time. These adults can provide support to the child and also let you know when the child is showing anxiety or fear or needs more home support. These support people usually need to know just the basics of what is going on and don’t need details that are very private or personal. Recognize that sharing basic information about what a child is facing at home is crucial for teachers and others who interact with children every day.

Sharing this information allows these adults to model coping skills and offers them the opportunity to provide extra support for the child at a crucial time in their development. Keep these adults posted as things develop or change, and let them know specifically what your child has been told about a particular situation. Sometimes a school counselor offers small groups for children who have been through similar experiences. These groups let the child know that they are not alone and that their reactions are “normal.” For example, groups for children in divorced families, led by an experienced counselor, can provide children with needed coping skills, reassurance and new social contacts at their school.   

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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