Friday, May 22, 2020

Grieving the Semester That Wasn’t

If your children do not seem to “be themselves” lately, it is wise to consider they might be grieving.

You would think that because God gave us separate emotions to use on different occasions that the brain would be able to choose the right emotion for the job.

We might think that – but we would be wrong.

My theory may not be official, but I imagine the brain keeps emotion in a sack, and sometimes when it doesn’t know which emotion is correct, it picks a random one and applies it. This phenomenon is especially real for children who are beginners in the business of feelings. Grief may not always look like grief.

For parents, it is a good idea to frequently make a check on the emotional expressions of your children to see if there is a hidden emotion.  For instance, the school year has ended. While this means family members no longer have to fight for computer time, and parents no longer need to worry over lessons, it still does not feel like summer vacation.

This year did not have the usual routine that helps school-aged children to bring closure to the year. Your child may not have mentioned missed field trips, yearbook signings, or special events that typically replace the grief of change with good memories. And your child does not need to be graduating to feel grief over what was lost. The brain knows that some part of the end-of-year routine is missing, creating sadness and anxiety. The brain does not ignore grief, and it doesn't always understand what to do with it.

Grief is a reasonably unfamiliar emotion for many children. If they have not experienced the loss of a family member or a pet, they might not recognize grief over losing end-of-year activities. And while this kind of grief is not as intense as a family loss, it is there none-the-less.

Because your child may not recognize this loss, this may impact behavior in much the same way as anxiety. In other words, it may not look like grief.

Here are three things that you can do with your child if you suspect that grief is lurking behind unexpected or hard-to-change behavior.

Sit in grace. While the impulse may be to immediately correct the behavior, this is a perfect opportunity to spend some time in grace mode. Some small things ask for empathy and reframing.

“I wonder if you are feeling sad about missing the end of the school year? I think your teacher and your classmates feel the same way. What can you do to help yourself feel better?

Do you see what we did there? This response correctly identifies the feelings of grief and points the child in the right direction for regulating -- or dealing with -- those feelings.

Wait a bit. Some behaviors cannot you cannot ignore, but most can wait until after a cooling-off period. Allow your child some time to calm down and find his or her sadness. Talk with your child about grief before applying a consequence. Often, once children realize the emotion that caused the behavior, they no longer wish to repeat the behavior. If it is a persistent behavior, understanding the "why" behind it will help your child find a better way to express feelings.

Make connections: When children experience a new emotion, they lack an understanding of how to regulate it. Even if your child denies that he or she is sad about the end of the year, it doesn’t hurt to make that connection so they can gradually learn how to identify emotions and how to use them more effectively. Identify grief as the reason for the behavior. Say it aloud and allow your child to talk about it and about what can be done.

It is a healthy product of grief to do something to remember what was lost, such as communicate with a friend or write a letter to the teacher.  An effective way to explain this is to point out the difference between dealing with sadness and anger and doing things that make others sad or angry. 

We want our children to learn they can control their behavior in nearly any emotional state. Once they can do this, their emotions begin to help them understand what has happened instead of possibly working  against their better interests.

The LORD is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

God in His providence gave us emotions to help us learn, to help us make decisions, and to help us live and work with each other. Emotions also help us to comprehend new experiences, overwhelming experiences, and unwelcome ones. It is a gift to be able to help your children to understand and use emotions. It is a task with which God will gladly help. He cares about your emotions, too.

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