One-in-four Aussie kids will experience parental separation, and they can be assisted by the adults in their lives to navigate this intensely emotional journey more smoothly, according to grief expert Fiona McCallum.
Change and loss is a part of life, and when children and young people are taught skills to help them adapt to change and loss, they are better equipped not only to deal with the separation of their parents – but also to adapt to other changes as their lives unfold, says the general manager of Good Grief, which has developed a Seasons for Growth program with this in mind.
Everyone experiences change and loss differently, and children and young people are no different, Fiona told attendees at Generation Next’s Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People seminar in Sydney recently.
According to Fiona, who has a background in nursing, education and human resources, there are a many signs that may indicate that the young people in your care are struggling. Primary school kids may display fast-changing emotions, or regress to earlier behaviours, while adolescents may become moody and self-centred, withdraw socially, or engage in risky behaviour. Both age groups may experience physical symptoms like stomach aches, sleep problems or headaches.
“Children react in very unique and individual ways – primary school aged children may be sad one minute, angry the next and happy the next – they may have many seasons in a day,” Fiona says. “For adolescents going through a period of grief, it’s really common for them to retreat, and it’s also common for those emotions to be very intense.”
A growing body of evidence points to a number of key areas that will impact on the ability of children and young people to cope, according to Fiona. A strong, supportive, warm and open relationship with at least one parent is the overwhelming mediating factor according to many different studies, she says, while involvement in ongoing decision making in the face of change has also been shown to be important.
“Allowing them to participate in decisions that are age and developmentally appropriate can give them a sense of control, and that’s really important for their wellbeing.”
Caring support networks are another important factor. Here are just some ways you can support the young people in your care:
- Recognise that while children are vulnerable due to their circumstances and inexperience, they are capable of making decisions, setting goals and solving problems, given the opportunity and support
- Children and young people need support to understand their reactions. Reassure them it is okay to feel sad, angry, etc and that is a normal part of grieving and loss
- Don’t force them to share the details of their story or say “I know how you feel” (as everyone responds differently to change and loss)
- Let them know their loss is recognised
- Identify yourself as a safe person and that you are open and willing to listen
- Help children to recognise and identify their feelings
- Show them techniques or ways to diffuse overwhelming feelings
- Teach them that whilst feelings are okay, boundaries still apply (as these will help them feel safe and retain normality in other areas of their lives)
- Support them to maintain consistency in other areas of life, such as extracurricular activities
For more tips and training opportunities head to www.goodgrief.org.au
Fiona McCallum will be tackling the topic Helping Young People through Family Separation at our Melbourne Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People not-for-profit educational seminar on 30 August. Find out more here >>
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