Once upon a time, on a Monday, a man was walking down a road. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he found himself at the bottom of a big, dark place. It was scary! After several hours, he figured out that he had fallen into a very large pothole. He wasn’t able to get out on his own–actually it required a lot of help to get out, but eventually he did get out. It was awful.
The very next day–Tuesday, the man was walking down the road and fell into the pothole again. This time he immediately recognized where he was, but he still couldn’t get out. He needed help again.
Wednesday, when the man fell in the pothole for the 3rd time, he remembered how to get out, and–with much hard work–was able to get out on his own. Whew!
On Thursday, the man was walking down the street again. As he approached the pothole, he remembered his previous falls. He even saw the pothole when he got close… but unfortunately he fell in anyway. But he knew the way out pretty well this time, and got out quickly.
On Friday, the man saw the pothole from a good distance away. He felt so proud of himself for spotting it, and while it took a lot of effort, he did manage to walk around it safely, and didn’t fall in for the first time in a long time! Hurrah!
On Saturday, the man took a different road.
I love this story (it’s not mine, and I have no idea where it came from) as a metaphor for life change. I imagine the potholes as arguments or really bad habits that we find ourselves sucked into without meaning to go there! One of the first steps to change is always awareness, then hard work, and finally comes success. Eventually, living our lives the way we want to–having our relationships look like we want them to–stops being a ton of effort, and we find ourselves on a smooth path with no (okay, few) potholes.
Here’s to having a smoother path before you this week!
Today’s post is written by author & therapist Victoria Hendricks.
No parent wants to use the words “child” and “death” in the same sentence. But life doesn’t always honor our wants. In the best circumstances we can introduce children to death gradually. We can talk to the three year old about the difference between the live ant that crawls and the dead ant that lies still and stiff. We can have a sad, sweet funeral for the gold fish with the kindergartener.
Sometimes though, death doesn’t give us time to prepare children gently and gradually. Sometimes a beloved uncle dies of a sudden heart attack, a friend is killed by a car, or a parent is diagnosed with a life threatening disease and then succumbs. What can we do for our children then, when we are hurting and in shock and they need information and support, right then?
When my daughters were five and nine, their daddy died of cancer within nine months of diagnosis. The bad news is that, even with training as a grief counselor, I could not spare them pain and after effects of that loss. The good news is both of them feel that they understood what was going on with their daddy and his death and that they felt loved and safe, even when very sad.
So what is helpful when the bottom falls out and you and your children are faced with the unspeakable?
Tell the truth. Tell it in simple, age appropriate terms, but don’t sugar coat. Euphemisms are confusing. Especially avoid any likening of death to sleep, so children won’t become afraid of sleep. Explain the “why” of the particular death accurately because children tend to blame themselves even when that doesn’t seem reasonable at all. Truth fights that tendency. Tell your truth about the spiritual aspects of death too. You can say that others believe differently, but telling a story one doesn’t believe isn’t helpful.
Answer questions as many times as they ask. Sometimes children need many repetitions, and they definitely need to hear about their losses at different developmental stages over the years, so that their understanding can develop with them.
Remember grief comes in a wave form that hits cyclically. That’s true for all of us, but for little children the waves hit close together and emotions shift quickly. It’s completely normal for a five year old to be weeping inconsolably and then in ten minutes, be laughing and chasing a friend. Remember anger as well as sadness is part of grief and let your child know that too and have safe outlets for anger. Let your child know that all feelings are normal and feelings pass.
Develop rituals that work for you and your child, whether telling a story, lighting a candle, or going to a grave site. It doesn’t matter what you do, but that you and the grieving child do something together that opens conversation about the loss and allows you to share it.
Be clear with your child that she or he will be taken care of no matter how sad you are and no matter how hard things get.
Take care of yourself. Use your own support system. Your child needs you strong. Love truly is stronger than loss in the end, or so it has seemed in my life, but loss hurts and we don’t need to pretend it doesn’t in order to protect and nurture our children.
Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individual & couples. Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still, so I’m very excited to be able to include this post from her today. If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh AT aol DOT com.
As an MSSW first-year intern, I worked at a residential treatment facility for teenage male sex offenders. I didn’t ask for that job, and it was really-really challenging, but I definitely learned an enormous amount there. This is one of my favorite stories from that time.
I worked with a psychiatrist who was a super smart guy. He was completely dedicated to the kids, but not terribly patient with the interns. One day I made the mistake of complaining to him. One of the kids had just interacted with me in a sexually inappropriate way, and I was feeling gross and uncomfortable and just icky all over. I tried to evaluate the interaction in a professional, clinical way, but mostly just came up with the conclusion that the kid was “wrong” and not working his treatment program appropriately. So when I ran into the psychiatrist, I described the kid’s behavior, probably in such a way that I highlighted how “bad” and resistant to treatment the kid was. (“Bad kid, bad!”)
The Dr looked at me, and immediately said: “Good for him!”
Oh my goodness. I was just a wee bit offended and righteous. But, thankfully the doctor didn’t care, and his desire to educate me prevailed. Here’s what he taught me that day:
We really must view a child’s behavior as communication, and communication is good. That doctor wanted me to be able to recognize that a child in a treatment center for a sexual offense, who hits on a staff member, is sending a message loud and clear. And the doctor wanted me to get the correct message. The message wasn’t: “I’m a bad kid.” Rather, the message I needed to get was: “I’m not done learning and growing. I need more help with healthy relationships.” (*)
To be clear: I’m not saying that the behavior itself is good-or even okay. Rather, I’m saying that if we look at it as a communication, then we can find the good behind the behavior. There IS good behind the behavior, and our kids NEED us to choose this perspective. So, we can look at the kid as though they are intrinsically “good,” and that their “bad” behavior is a communication of need. Compare this with assuming that a “bad” behavior is a reflection of a “bad” child. Which of these perspectives will allow us to be more loving and helpful to the child as they grow? Which perspective discourages growth?!
Our kids need us to look behind their behavior. They need us to assume the best, and help them grow and learn.
So, parents, when could you say “Good for him/her!” about your child?
(*) It’s also possible that the child’s message included either (a) “Are you safe? Can I trust that you won’t be unhealthy with me even if I try to be unhealthy with you?” or (b) “I know that you are safe, and that’s why I can trust you with this communication-that I am still not safe.”
A dad I know asked me about play therapy the other day. Does it really work? How does it work? How can play be therapy?
“Oh,” I said, “Good Question!” ;^)
Children aren’t cognitively or verbally able to process everything that happens to them in their lives (shoot, neither am I!) nor do they have the cognitive or linguistic development for insight-oriented talk therapy (what most adults are doing in their individual therapy sessions). Therefore, children find healing and growth some other way. Enter play therapy.
Play therapy does work, and my favorite explanation of how play therapy works is this: it gives the child the opportunity to re-experience and/or communicate about something from their normal life, in a context that is (a) safe, (b) under their control, and (c) associated with different emotions. There’s some fancy neurological stuff going on when this happens, but the upshot is that it allows the child to re-experience something in a way that heals.
Let’s consider a hypothetical example… Little Johnny’s father drinks beer every night and basically ignores his family when he drinks. Johnny comes to my office one day and selects the family dolls. He finds my miniature beer cans (yes, I really do have miniature beer cans) and puts one in the father doll’s hands. Then he has the child doll take the beer can from the father and hide it. Do you see what’s going on here? In Johnny’s real life, he might want to take the beer from his father, but he cannot safely do so. In the play therapy setting, he can pretend to do the thing he wants to do, and he can feel control over the whole situation in a way he never can in real life. The other major component of how this works is that while he is re-experiencing this, his brain is firing up the same neural connections that fire up in real life-but this time Johnny is in a different emotional state. He’s calmer and feeling less of whatever uncomfortable emotions he typically feels when his father drinks-and this is very healing.
Want a real-life example? From my own life, of course, I can’t share real client stories. My toddler daughter has curly hair. Our nightly hair-brushing is frequently an unpleasant chore (and trust me, I’ve tried every product/trick/approach known to mama.) But the upshot is that sometimes she fusses–a lot. Some time ago, I gave her the brush and let her brush my hair. She loved this and we now do it regularly. When she brushes my hair, she grins and laughs and says: “Mama: CRY!” So I whimper and cry and say all of the phrases she usually says to me when I brush her hair, all to her great delight. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it the first few times we did that, but eventually I caught on-she’s creating her own little play therapy routine. Now every time we play that game, although I’m “crying” on the outside, I’m smiling inside… play therapy works!