Thursday, November 29, 2012

Talking to Young Children about Death

In March 2010, my young cousin died suddenly.  She left a shocked and bereaved family including her 2 year old daughter and 4 year old son.  We worried about her husband and wondered how he could possibly help his young children to cope with this tragedy.  We, as adults, could not understand how such a kind and loving person could be taken in her prime and why these two children had to grow up without their mother.  If we cannot understand death, how can we help children to understand why all life ends?  I am not a bereavement specialist and would not claim to be one.  I do, however, know about children and how they think.  I will forever admire my cousin’s husband for providing his children with what all children ultimately need from us – honesty.
Young children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality.  They depend on us to help them to do that.  Their inability to differentiate is the reason that they can believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the monster on their closet.  It is why they can believe in superheroes and why they talk back to the television as if the characters can hear them.  This inability to know what is real and what is not can provide the magic of mystical holidays but it also can fuel fear and confusion.  Our children place their trust in us and depend on us for truth.  I remember when my son realized there was no tooth fairy.  He felt conned.  I even remember when I was a girl and the teacher on “Romper Room” would wish me a happy birthday through her magic mirror.  It was amazing – until I saw my mother writing to the show about my sister’s birthday.  I couldn’t believe my mother set it all up.  The little things – the fantasies of childhood – are not life altering and not scary so we use their imaginations to create special moments.  This is not like when a beloved pet, a favorite aunt or, unfortunately, even a parent suddenly disappears.   That disappearance becomes even more confusing when we say that the deceased are in a place the children can see.  Children wonder, “If my dog is in the sky, why can’t I see him?”  If Mommy went on a vacation, why isn’t she coming back?  Simple and honest explanations, even saying we don’t know, are far less confusing than anything we can make up.

When a loved one is taken, children need to know that they can still love someone who is not physically there.   My father died when my sons were 3 & 7 years old.  I felt it was important for them to know that he would not be here anymore.  He would not be at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings but we remember him and still love him.  I made sure not to say that he was living in another house or on a cloud or in another familiar object because they were at a literal age and would look for that house, cloud or object for years.  I didn’t associate his death with their world in any way.  It is okay to share your beliefs.  Perhaps you believe that we go to a place called heaven.  Explain to children what you believe about heaven.  You might not believe in any life after death.  In that case, you can focus only on the memories of a loved one rather than where they are. 

Most importantly, it is imperative that children see that it is acceptable to be sad.  For many generations, children were shielded from attending the rites and rituals associated with death.  Often, what children are imagining is far scarier than the reality.  Being sad is part of the human condition.  Children are sometimes sad.  They can know that sadness is an emotion also felt by adults.  Sometimes adults cry and they stop just like children do.  If children will be attending a funeral or other death ritual, they should be told that the adults will be sad and might cry.  Knowing what is coming makes the reality less frightening.  They will expect it and they can relate to crying.  They actually understand that emotion and want to comfort you like you comfort them.  They can learn from watching you deal with emotion and watching you cope.

Remember that most children are already aware of death.  They see insects die.  They see plants die.  They can see death on television and in video games.  Talking to them about death gently and honestly helps explain a life condition that they have already seen.  By using the words for a condition they have seen and saying someone has died, it gives a name to that which they see in nature all the time.

My cousin’s children know the word “died.”  They are now 5 years old and 7 years old.  In the course of conversation, they will sometime say , “My mommy died.”  We reply , “Yes, she did.”  And the conversation goes to another topic.  They know their mother isn’t here with us while not really understanding why.  We don’t understand it either.  It just is.

For information about children coping with loss, go to


Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
Please do not sell, post, curate, publish, or distribute all or any part of this article without author's permission.   You are invited, however, to share a link to this post on your webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social networking sites.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Goal of Parenting: Teaching Children to Leave Us

As a school director, I watch parents struggle with young children who are hesitant to leave the safety and security of their home & family.  I watch parents debate sending children to sleepovers at their friends’ houses, overnight school trips and camp.  As a parent, I have experienced all of that and the emotional rollercoaster of sending my son to college.  Ultimately, I realize that the struggle was always mine and not as much his.  It was time and all was as it should be.  He wanted to reach away from me and go overnight, then for a weekend, a summer and a lifetime.   It was me who had to cut those strings and send him into the world. 

Parenthood has so many ironies.  We are handed a helpless infant who depends on us for literally everything.  From their first feeding and diaper change, having them become more independent becomes the goal.   We wonder how soon it will be before they talk, walk, potty train and feed themselves.   We celebrate those milestones.  We have to protect them while we teach them to stand on their own.  Our instincts tell us to keep them where they are safe and loved while we put them on the scary school bus for the first time.

The question before each parent is how brave he/she will be as an example of courage for their children.  Do we do our children any favors when we refuse to allow reasonable risks or independent living, even if just for a night or a weekend?  Recently, I sat with a group of parents whose children were in high school.  They were debating the merits of sending them on a trip with the ski club.  One parent said, “I won’t let her go because if anything happens to her, I would never forgive myself.”  When our own fears supersede offering new experiences, parenting has become more about us and less about our children.

The lessons we learn about handling separation anxiety do not apply only to very young children.  They apply to children of all ages.  We give our children messages through our actions.  When we kiss young children good-bye and leave swiftly with a smile, they see that we believe they will be fine.  They gain confidence in their ability to trust others and to cope.  When at preschool, they begin to become critical thinkers and decision makers.  When we tell older children that they cannot have reasonable, properly chaperoned experiences, we give them the message that we don’t have confidence in the very skills that we are supposed to be fostering – independence, emotional development, ability to make decisions and social skills. 

When deciding which experiences our children can have, we need to be sure that our decision is based upon their safety and well-being and not our own fears.  They will learn from their experiences just as we did.  They will find their way.  We have to let them find who they are apart from us.  It is, after all, our job to teach them to go.  

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
Please do not sell, post, curate, publish, or distribute all or any part of this article without author's permission.   You are invited, however, to share a link to this post on your webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social networking sites.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Speaking With Children...

Since Hurricane Sandy hit our area, I have had the privilege of having the most amazing conversations with children.  Children of all ages, from 2 ½ years old through high school, have described to me what they lived through, witnessed and heard about from the adults around them.  Even the youngest children have been talking about when their lights were out, the strong winds and downed trees.   I have watched adults talk to children about the events of the past few weeks with sensitivity and intelligence.  I wonder why we don’t speak to children like this more often.

Babyish voices, simple words and sing song intonations do not help our children learn the conventions of our language.  Children learn a great deal through imitation.  Language is imitated from the time they are babies.  Their babbling is an imitation of the rhythm of the language they hear being used around them.  As they get older and learn words, they learn the words we give to them.  We spend a great deal of time on the basics.  There is more to giving language to children.

Every language has a rhythm and beat.   Singing and listening to music is one of the foundations for future literacy.  Through music, children begin to learn to imitate that which will become the rhythm and beat of oral and written language.  We sing songs and are so proud when very young children sing them.  Music is fun and sets the foundation for imitation of language.  That ability to imitate needs to be taken to the next step.  They need to have us speak to them in the real rhythm of our language and not an exaggerated, sing-song version.  They need to feel confident when conversing with others and that confidence comes, in part, from sounding like the adults they hear conversing with each other.  Language should bring them into our world and not set them apart.

We also need to be consciously expanding their vocabularies.  Consider the number of words we use to describe their emotions.  Most people default to merely five words – happy, sad, mad, scared and upset.  There are many degrees of those emotions.  Young children can learn the difference between being happy, joyful and ecstatic.  They can be scared, afraid or terrified.  Sometimes it is appropriate to describe how they are feeling by saying mad and sometimes furious is more accurate.  Imagine having only five words to describe the range of emotions that you feel on a daily basis.  It is no wonder that children get frustrated by trying to describe their feelings.

Expanding vocabulary includes using alternative words for objects as well as emotions.  Each year, most preschools spend time doing activities about cars, boats, buses, trains and airplanes.  We sing cute songs about transportation.  It is nice to know that boats go in water and airplanes fly.  It would also be great for the children to know that to transport means to move something from one place to another.   There are many shades of colors and many shapes beyond the basics.   While talking to young children, use synonyms for the words they are used to hearing.  You will be amazed at how much they can understand from new words in familiar context.

I am not a fan of the nonsense words in some popular children’s books nor am I a fan of the speech patterns of many popular puppets and cartoon characters.  I do, however, enjoy when a young child runs up to me and declares, “I am ecstatic today” or when children in the midst of pretend have intelligent exchanges filled with descriptive language about their imaginary world.  Those are the children who will find magic in language as they learn to read and write.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Resilience, Children & The Aftermath of a Hurricane

On October 29, my home state of New Jersey was in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Lives have been disrupted.  At the very least, residents have been without electric which provides not only lights but also heat and hot water.  At the most, people have lost homes and been displaced with few or no belongings.  Nothing has felt right or familiar.  Schools have been closed for nearly two weeks.  Families are with other families or in shelters.  Places we have loved are gone.  There is no regular routine.

The children in our community have had their lives turned upside down.  Some have slept in the cold.  Others have stayed with friends or relatives.  Some, not far from here, live in shelters now.  All week, I have listened to adults say, “They will be okay.  Children are resilient.” 

I challenge the notion that all children are resilient and hesitate to invalidate their thought processes by declaring so.  If all children were resilient, then we would not see so many children suffering from anxiety and depression.   They are not too young to know that their lives are disrupted.  They thrive on routine and nothing is normal.  I am left to wonder if “Encouraging coping skills and resilience” should be listed as a goal under our early childhood social/emotional development goals.

Encouraging coping skills and resilience begins with validating their feelings and knowing how young children can express emotions.  Children may behave differently – become more clingy, more active or more defiant.  When adults are stressed, it becomes more difficult to deal with the behaviors that indicate stress in young children.  We forget that they are processing emotions just like we are but don’t have the words or the maturity to express it like an adult.  Young children will not come to you to say, “My life is in a shambles.  Nothing feels right.”  We just have to know it.  Adults have to find a way to provide routine when there is none for us.  When children know what is coming next, they feel more secure.  

Validating a child’s feelings also means giving them the words.  When we say, “I know you are afraid” or “Being away from home is frustrating,” we open the door for communication and give them a name for what they feel.  Imagine feeling something and not knowing what it is. Imagine being angry and then being dismissed because you are declared resilient. 

Children can also express their emotions through play.  The most important center in a preschool classroom is the dramatic play center.  Dramatic play gives children a safe way to explore roles and emotions.  Give your stressed child the gift of time for dramatic play.  Children will use dolls to show how they feel.  They will pretend to be older like you, younger like their siblings and superheroes who are fearless.  As they step into roles, we are given a window to their feelings.  Watch them play and consider what it tells you about what they are feeling.

Finally, the most important thing we can give our children when their lives are disrupted is sometimes the hardest thing to give – time.  They need our time.  They need to have time with our undivided attention so they know they are still loved and still a priority.

Should we teach coping and resilience?  We do that by giving our children a means of expression.  A child who can express feelings feels less isolated. We do that by making young children feel validated, safe, secure, independent and capable.  A child who feels capable can face challenge.  We do that by being examples of resilience and teaching our children that we will survive.

I think of the children we saw in the shelters as I look into the faces of those who have homes.  I pray for their resilience.

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
Please do not sell, post, curate, publish, or distribute all or any part of this article without author's permission.   You are invited, however, to share a link to this post on your webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social networking sites.