Q: How do you get children to talk about their feelings?
A: Children’s feelings about a loss can often become buried and their reactions can often turn into complicated behaviour patterns. When they are grieving they might find it very hard to focus or concentrate, or be interested in their favourite foods or activities. At other times they might become angry or irritable. When grief is intense a child might just feel numb. Feeling nothing when you should be feeling a lot can be confusing. Some children can feel guilty if their feelings are numb when something bad has happened however feeling numb in such situations is often the result of an overwhelming emotional experience. Expressing how they are feeling might become very difficult. Particular techniques involving play are useful to help such children make more direct contact with how they feel. One creative activity is to make a box that includes reminders about the person. Ask your child to paint it or colour it and add images and words that help them feel protected and strong. Draw a picture, write a story, or make some notes about special memories that had to do with the particular person. Modify what materials you provide to your child depending upon their age or understanding of the concept of death.
Some children have considerable confusion over exactly what happened, when it happened or in what order things happened. Sometimes remembering is too painful and they refuse to remember. Here again particular techniques can be useful, such as making a life story book. The life story book is made with the child’s help, information about themselves, photographs of family, houses they have lived in, people or animals that have died, drawings, maps of journeys all dated in chronological sequence. Doing such an activity may enable events and their associated feelings to be recalled and ordered. Starting with “easier” events can initiate the process, which can then lead on to talking about more “difficult” events. Once children begin to express and share their held-in feelings and the grief work begins, then self esteem will begin to grow.
Q: My child refuses to go to school, what should I do?
A: Although school refusal has been associated with both separation anxiety and social phobia, the easiest way to think about it is that school refusal is a difficulty attending school associated with emotional distress, especially anxiety and depression. It is not truancy and it’s not the occasional day when your child doesn’t want to go to school for a specific reason. It’s when a child persistently avoids or refuses to go to school and is truly distressed with visible anxiety about attending.
Particularly after a death, children may be more sensitive to periods of separation from the remaining caregiver. This could manifest itself in the child having unrealistic and recurrent worries about harm occurring to loved ones, especially when they are apart. There may also be a reluctance to fall asleep without being near the remaining caregiver, the child may also have nightmares and tantrums when separation is imminent. Physical symptoms (especially frequent in older children and adolescents), such as dizziness, stomachache, cramps, vomiting, muscle aches, or palpitations, may also be present and problematic. When children seem sick and are trying to stay home from school, it is not always easy to recognise that they are avoiding school. That is why a visit to the Gp is usually a good first step. This can help ensure that your child doesn’t have a physical condition causing their symptoms. Once a diagnosis of school refusal is made, it might help to:
Listen and acknowledge their feelings about why they don’t want to go. Being aware of your own anxiety in your child’s presence is important as parents who tend to show they are upset with the child’s anxiety might worsen the situation. By giving lots of positive encouragement and modelling good stress management skills, parents can begin the process of reassuring the child that although it might be difficult for a while, they can cope with the separation. Bringing in a favourite small toy/object from home might also increase the child’s sense of safety within the school environment.
Even though the child more than likely doesn’t have a physical problem causing their symptoms, that doesn’t mean that those symptoms aren’t real. So the child isn’t necessarily making up symptoms, such as stomachaches or dizziness. They may be caused by their anxiety about going to school. Relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing might be useful way to help calm the child down and focus on the “here and now”.
- By working together with the school, parents and teachers can increase a sense of emotional safety in the school environment as well as warmly and openly allow for honest discussion about the anxieties associated with attending school.