So many of the parents and carers that contact us when someone in their family is going to die or has died, tell us that their primary concern is to provide the best possible support to their children; however, through our conversations with families, we recognise that parenting bereaved children can be challenging. Let’s be honest, parenting can be daunting at the best of times as parents attempt to juggle their time between a range of duties including working, household duties, looking after children, and sparing some time for themselves. For parents of bereaved children, the challenges are even greater.
At SeeSaw, the majority of our work is in supporting families when a parent or carer has died. This means that the surviving parent may be trying to help their children manage their grief when they are grieving the loss of a partner themselves. Parenting bereaved children often involves taking on new roles that may have previously been shared with the other parent, such as becoming responsible for the financial security of the family, or having to make decisions and be responsible for discipline by themselves, as well as needing to understand and respond to the individual needs of their grieving children. Grief is tiring and parents have to manage all of these demands when they are exhausted themselves. It is no wonder that bereaved parents can end up feeling overwhelmed or overloaded.
In America, two psychology professors, Irwin Sandler and Sharlene Wolchik have conducted extensive research into helping bereaved children. Their research* shows that while the experience of a parent dying can be incredibly difficult and painful for children, most will go on to lead healthy and successful lives. As part of their research they have identified some parenting strategies which have shown to help bereaved children best cope with their loss. If you are a parent or carer who is supporting bereaved children, you may be interested in the following parenting strategies which these researchers have shown to be helpful for bereaved children:
1) Look after yourself
Parents are often more concerned about looking after their children needs than their own and will tend to put their own self-care aside. You are the most important person to help your children cope with their grief and taking good care of yourself is essential. Parents who look after themselves are better able to meet their children’s needs and to help them develop the skills they will need to cope. Set yourself small, achievable goals and give yourself credit when you reach them. We know the importance of sharing with others so try and find another trusted adult to talk to about your experiences and feelings. Notice when you are being hard on yourself or thinking negatively and practice some self-kindness (see our earlier Blog post on Empathy). Take out the ‘shoulds’ and ‘nevers’ and replace them with more realistic and optimistic judgements of yourself. Finally, rest when you can, eat as healthily as you can and try and get out in the fresh air when you feel up to it.
2) Focus on strengthening your parent-child relationships
After someone dies, it is common for families to always focus on the loss or the negatives of their situation when they are together which can have an adverse effect on family relationships. When everyone is grieving it might feel difficult to give yourselves permission to enjoy doing activities together. Spending time together and doing things that you enjoy, will help to strengthen your relationships with your children and as a family as a whole. Try setting aside a couple of hours a week for ‘Family Time’ and do an activity that everyone enjoys. You can also try weekly One-on-One Time – just 10 or 15 minutes where each child gets your undivided attention. The key is to do these consistently so that they become routines that children can count on. Doing fun activities together will help strengthen your relationships and encourage your children to ‘have a break’ from their grief which has been shown to be an important part of healthy grieving.
3) Learn how to listen to your children effectively
The importance of learning to listen to your children who are grieving cannot be overstated. Listening to children with warmth, acceptance and understanding will help develop resilience in your children. You may have heard of the expression ‘Active listening’ which means listening and responding in a way that shows that you understand what the other person is experiencing. Using active listening with children can help them become more aware of their feelings, more comfortable in expressing them and shows them that you understand their worries and concerns.
One useful strategy for listening to children is ‘Big Ears’. This simply means looking at your child and giving them all of your attention when they are talking to you. You can also try using a strategy called ‘Tell Me More’ which means encouraging your children to share more with you by nodding or using encouraging words. It can also be helpful to name your children’s feelings to show you understand what they are telling you. For example, you might say, “You seem very sad today because you have been thinking about Mummy, is that right?” This helps children to make connections between their thoughts and feelings and develop the words for describing how they feel.
4) Establish consistent family rules
Disciplining children after someone has died is challenging for many parents and carers. It can also sometimes feel too harsh to discipline children who are grieving. Research, however, consistently shows that children who have clear rules, and positive consequences for following them, as well as negative consequences for breaking them, cope better. For bereaved children having clear rules and boundaries provides a sense of safety and stability when so much in their lives has changed.
The strategy of the 3 Cs can be helpful for this – Be clear, be calm, and be consistent. This simply means clearly communicate your expectations, calmly decide on consequences for breaking rules and consistently apply them. It can be helpful to include your children in deciding and agreeing what the rules for your family will be. Try also to remember the importance of ‘Positive discipline’ – noticing when your child has done something well or good and reinforcing positive behaviours rather than only ever punishing rule breaking or bad behaviour.
5) Help to develop your children’s coping skills
It has been shown that one of the best ways that parents can support their bereaved children is to help them develop coping strategies that they can use over time. Children may revisit their grief as their understanding grows and as they reach different milestones. Children will constantly have to deal with reminders of their parent’s death or manage difficult days when they simply miss them. Research has found that parents can help their children to cope more effectively.
All of the strategies mentioned here will help create a warm family environment, with open communication and clear rules, which helps reduce the negative effects of stress on bereaved children. You can also help your children to cope by planning ahead for how to deal with difficult situations such as holidays and birthdays. You can help them to express their feelings by sharing memories, reading books, and talking about the person who died.
When your children come to you with their problems try not to automatically jump to fix them yourself. Using guided problem-solving techniques, you can encourage your children to come up with their own solutions and try them out themselves. This way you will be helping them to develop important skills for dealing with all of the ups and downs of life.
Finally, one of the most important ways you can help your children is by modelling positive coping strategies. This might mean showing your children the benefits of talking to others and asking for help when you need it. If, after reading this blog, you would like any further advice to help you in parenting your bereaved children then you can contact SeeSaw by following the link on our website or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow our social media platforms for tips and information throughout the year.
* Sandler IN, Wolchik SA, Ayers TS, Tein JY, Luecken L. (2013). Family Bereavement Program (FBP) Approach to Promoting Resilience Following the Death of a Parent. Family Science, 4(1).