When there is a crisis
When there's a crisis in the family, children know it, whether you tell them or not. If Mom and Dad are talking in their room with the door shut, if family routines are disrupted, if a parent seems upset or withdrawn, children will notice. Don't let them jump to conclusions. More than one family has been confronted with a child asking, "Are you and Daddy getting a divorce?" when the real problem has been less traumatic. For example, Dad has lost his job, and Mom and Dad have been talking in private about money. Whatever the crisis, find a good time to tell your children what's going on in a way appropriate to their age.
When your family faces the long illness or death of a family member, or one parent's loss of a job, or divorce and remarriage, it can mean a big adjustment for everyone. Families who have established good patterns of communication seem to handle crises better than others. If children know they can talk to their parents about their emotions -- including anger, fear, and grief -- and be greeted with understanding rather than disapproval, they will have a first outlet for their distress.
Listen to your child
One of the most important parenting skills is that of responsive listener -- a parent who listens to the anxiety behind the children's questions and comments. A parent who listens closely to what his child shows as well as what he says can help the child explore his emotions by asking gentle questions. An open-ended question like "How do you feel about Daddy leaving?" is too difficult for a troubled child to answer. But if you say, "Were you sad or angry when you woke up this morning and thought about Daddy?" he is more likely to name his emotions. In difficult situations it can also be helpful to ask, "What was the worst thing about today?" or "What was the best thing?" Even the child who doesn't like to answer these questions can benefit from being asked, if you respect his wish not to be pushed.
Don't let your child be forgotten as you become engrossed in the details of a separation or coping with bereavement. Your detachment may pose a risk, especially for the child who reacts by withdrawing and appears not to be troubled because he's quiet. If you don't feel equipped to handle your child's trauma alone, ask someone else who cares for your child -- a spouse, relation, or friend -- to step in for you. Let the house go, and accept offers of casseroles and other support from the neighbours so that you can free your time to spend with your children.
How stress may appear
All crises are different, and the reactions of individual children vary with their age, their temperament, and their life experiences. Many of the ways children express stress are different from adult reactions. Your children may exhibit either physical symptoms or behavioural changes, although both may occur, and the problems are not age-specific. Here are examples of physical symptoms.
• gastric upsets such as tummy ache or loss of appetite
• sleep problems such as nightmares and insomnia
• overactivity and inability to concentrate
• bedwetting and bowel accidents
Other symptoms of stress are behavioural. Signs of depression such as withdrawal or loss of energy can be seen in children as young as three. But sadness and anger can come out in other forms, such as disruptive behaviour and overactivity. Some children regress to an earlier stage of development, and they need a great deal of reassurance and physical contact, although they might have become quite independent. If a child is worried about the situation at home, she may be afraid to go to school, although she had earlier been a happy student. She is expressing her fear that something dire may happen at home if she's not there to stop it. Other behavioural problems may be caused by stress:
• defiance and negativity
• antisocial behaviour such as destroying things or hurting others
• dependent and clinging behaviour
• ritualized attachment to routine, such as needing the same foods or actions every day
• difficulty separating from parents or caregivers
• being fearful at night
• inability to accept discipline
• being accident-prone
Extent of the changes
These patterns of behaviour come and go in well-adjusted children and are a problem only if they persist. In eight- to ten-year-olds, for example, behavioural problems may increase the child's stress. If negativity and aggressive behaviour persist in this age group, it may affect the child's ability to make or keep friends, an important skill for this stage of development. A child who is unsuccessful at making friends will become isolated and may become more troubled as a result.
A child's inability to concentrate may also mushroom into full-fledged academic problems. At age eleven or twelve, children begin to realize that others may not put the same value on school as their parents do. A child who's unable to concentrate because of a family crisis may become lost in the more complex subjects and be unable to keep up with the progress of her class. She may be more inclined to share her problems with a close friend than with you, and you might encourage her to do so.
As peer relationships become more important, she may stake out a new identity for herself as the class clown. Another child might become a risk taker, not just trying new stunts on his skateboard but taking chances that could end his life. Some children become depressed and withdrawn, even suicidal. It can be difficult to distinguish the child who is seriously depressed from the moody preteen, but any abrupt changes in your child's choice of friends, her academic achievement, or her interests in life should set off alarm bells.
Some children express grief and loss in the same way that adults might. They have a brief troubled period, then begin to deal with their problems more effectively, and eventually get on with life. Other children are unlikely to concentrate on their grief or anger as adults do. They may run off and play and seem to forget the crisis for a time. Children who have experienced more than one shock within a short period of time are at greater risk. So if parents have divorced and the child has had to move, then Grandma dies, you are more likely to see extreme distress.
Helping your child adjust
Generally, if the child's behaviour is disruptive to the family or if he seems troubled for a long time, you may want to seek professional help. Many school boards have child psychologists on staff or on call, or you might ask for a referral through your family doctor or your religious leader. Publicly funded mental health centres in all provinces offer both family therapy and psychotherapy for children. If there's a waiting list, there are many family therapists and psychologists in private practice. Check your health plan to see if it covers part of the treatment for your child or family.
Bibliotherapy sometimes offers a successful alternative to professional treatment. Joseph Gold, in his book Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support System (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990), says that "Language is the human link between thought and feeling; story is the most memorable organization of language." Reading children's books whose stories focus on fictional children struggling with problems provides opportunities for you to talk together about their feelings and yours. But be sensitive to the situation and to your child's feelings; it would be too difficult for you both to read a story about death in the midst of your own grief. Many other resources in print and media highlight strategies for easing your family through particular crises.