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July 1998
SMALL LOSSES: Helping Children Grieve
by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.

Significant differences in parenting in the last few generations have made parents of young children more aware of their impact upon their children’s development than ever before. With the awareness comes anxiety about how best to foster their children’s future happiness. Sometimes I work with well-intentioned parents whose zeal to mend the natural losses of childhood is actually harmful. One of the most critical coping strategies that a person ever develops is how to grieve—how to experience loss without feeling "done in by it". If a parent always seeks to "fix things", the child subtley receives the message that loss is to be avoided at all costs because they won’t be able to endure it. One adult patient was told as a child by her mother that she should never cry, because she might never be able to stop. While such an example is extreme, if a parent so quickly acts to dry every tear, they are giving a similar message: grief will kill you.

Let me offer another way to handle these losses that can empower children. Many years ago, I took a hike with my then five year old daughter, Rachel. As we started the hike, Rachel found a "walking stick". Excitedly, she told me how the stick helped her to walk, how it made her go fast, how it was the right size. Halfway back down the hiking trail, Rachel hit her stick against some tree trunks and it broke. She burst into tears. I held her saying, "Oh, your walking stick broke. The one that helped you up the trail, the one that made you so fast, the one that was just your size!", etc. I did not point out the obvious—that we were surrounded by hundreds of other walking sticks. She was attached to that particular stick and she grieved for it. Hours later we talked about the possibility of other walking sticks.

When we allow our children to feel simple feelings regarding disappointments, arguments with friends, and unbought toys, we are giving them a rich gift. A parent need not manufacture losses for their children—daily life is filled with them. When children are allowed to grieve, they are better able to deal with more painful losses as they grow.

Here are a few guidelines for helping your children to grieve:

1. Ask the child how they feel, or state how sad-frustration-disappointed they might feel.
2. Don’t rush in to fix it! Let them have their reaction and your comforting affirmation of their feelings.
3. You don’t have to do this perfectly. I have done my share of dismissals ("Rachel, this isn’t a big deal."), as well as fixing ("Let’s go buy another lamp just like it."). The point is to allow your child their feelings of loss most of the time.

Recently I heard Rachel on the phone to her friend Virginia after her cat died. She said, "I’m so sorry. I know you loved her so much. I’ll be right over. I’ll wear black and we’ll have a funeral for her in the back yard and we’ll sit and cry." Allowing your child to grieve can help them with their own feelings and eventually, allow them to have more empathy and understanding for others as well.

Dr. Harper Slate is in private practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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