Helping Children Handle Feelings of Loss, Sadness & Disaster

Thrown off of the top bunk onto the bedroom floor.

It was a small, special, pink potted flower that my 4 year-old (Ava) recently got as a gift from her mother.  It landed on it's side and some of the soil spilled out onto the carpet.  She and her younger sister were enjoying it during a play time up on the top bunk before Ava climbed down and said, "Bethany, pass me the flower!"  I don't think she meant for her sister to pass it like a football.  But it went flying...

...and Ava started to cry.

Here's what happened next.  We got it on video.

In response to Ava's emotions there are several things I could've said.  (...but I'm glad I didn't say.)

  1. "Ava stop crying.  It's no big deal."  (Although there are times that it's appropriate to say this to a child, in this situation it would've made Ava feel, "Hey!  To me this is a big deal!"  She would've felt un-valued and not understood.)
  2. "Well, duh, Ava.  You shouldn't have asked your 2 year-old sister to pass you a flower pot from the top bunk."  (To a person, those phrases can also sound like, "It's your fault.  The disaster occurred because of you.  You are to blame for the loss you are experiencing."  It's not true that every disaster occurs because you or someone else is to blame for it.  In this case, it would've been wrong to say something that would've made her feel responsible for the loss she was feeling.)
  3. "Bethany...what were you thinking?  What did you think would happen if you threw a flower pot from a top bunk!?"  (Although Bethany might need to learn a bit about how to handle a flower pot correctly, she didn't do anything wrong on purpose.  It was just an accident.  No one needed to be blamed.)
  4. "Ava, did your sister do something to you that hurt your feelings?  I'm sorry she did that to you."  (Statements like that can tend to foster bitterness between people.)
  5. "Be more careful girls!  If something is important to you...treat it more carefully!"  (Statements like these can teach someone to be afraid of experiencing future disaster/loss.  It can plant a seed-thought like, "If you want to avoid disaster you better ____." (i.e. "be able to see it coming," "know how to avoid it," "keep people from hurting you," "take control of things yourself so you don't get hurt," etc.)  Or, "If I do a good enough job...if I can control my life well enough...I'll be able to avoid disaster."  We all probably think like this sometimes: "If I don't be careful I could lose _____. (i.e. "my financial security for retirement," "my husband's love/attention," "my job stability," "my child's safety," etc.)

Instead, I tried to give my children some tips on how to handle this "disaster" and future disasters.

1- When disaster happens (big or small) stop for a moment.

In times of disaster, its easy to respond quickly.  It takes effort and intention to emotionally slow down.  In more words, my tip is, "When you feel like disaster is happening try hard to slow down.  Try hard to take an emotional deep breath.  Before you start responding, do what you can to put your emotions on hold for a moment."

In the face of disaster, if you can put your emotions on hold (even for a few moments), it can leave just the space that's needed for something good/hopeful to happen. 

2- Before you start crying, look at Daddy's face.  (The word "Mommy" can be inserted here and in every instance the word "Daddy" is written below.)

In more words, "look at Daddy's face," means:

  • Daddy might be feeling something different than you.
  • Generally, Daddy knows the right way to feel about situations like these.
  • Study Daddy's eyes.  Study his emotions.  Ask yourself the question, "What does my Daddy feel about this disaster/loss?"  "I feel like crying/mourning.  Does this disaster/loss make Daddy feel like crying/mourning?  If NO then...why not?"
  • What does Daddy know about this situation that makes him not feel upset?
  • Maybe Daddy knows that it's going to be alright.
  • Let me ask questions of Daddy to find out what he knows.  "What does he know that is making him feel not upset about what looks disastrous to me?"

3- When disaster happens, try to feel the way that Daddy feels about it.

If I can successfully teach my children phrase #3, I can teach them that:

  • Their first response might not be the best response.
  • There is someone in their lives that knows how to respond better.  That person is Dad.  Let me take my cues from him.
  • Daddy is a good model from me.  I will learn good things when I imitate him.
  • When I experience something (whether good or bad) let me interact with my Daddy about it.

Why go through all this effort to teach my children these things?

1-  Dad/Mom as "Life-Coach"

A lot of what parenting is about teaching children how to handle life.  When the real, raw, messy moments of life happen, it's good for moms and dads to be "right in the middle of it" with their children.  This approach will help children look to Mom and/or Dad for answers to questions like, "What should be done in this situation?" "Here's what happened.  How should I respond?  Teach me Dad/Mom."

2- Dad/Mom as models/examples for what God is like.

When children grow older, and Mom/Dad aren't around, they will undoubtedly experience disaster/loss in life.  While they are young, when you teach them to look to Dad/Mom for help, it will open up a door for them to look to God (their heavenly Father) for help during their adult lives.

3- It makes "home" a bit more safe/stable emotionally.

Many times the emotions of children can be all over the place.  (I guess that's true of us adults as well!)  Teaching them to respond to disaster/loss with a "pause" can introduce a sense of emotional safety and stability that will serve your family well for years to come.

4- It can help them become people who believe that they will find good/hope around "life's corners" instead of fearing that disaster is waiting for them around all of "life's corners."  Read my wife's posts on "There's Good Around The Corner" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)