Below, some info about children’s grief reactions in school and how to help them with this big transition…
Child/Teen Grief Reactions at School:
- Reminders of deceased at school (e.g. dad used to be the one who helped with homework or picked up the child from school; sibling used to go to the same school and they’re not there this year; grandparents kept kids after school and they no longer go to grandparent’s house)
- Calling home multiple times per day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Drop in grades
- Missed work/not doing work/not turning in assignments
- Wanting things to be normal/not talking about the deceased
- Trips to the nurse’s office for physical complaints
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Acting out in the classroom
- Being the “class clown”
- Talking about the death or details of the illness/death at inappropriate times (e.g. during a lesson or as an interruption of another student)
- Unmotivated to do previously enjoyed activities
Does any of this sound familiar. If so, you know how helpless it can feel to know your child is suffering at school. Perhaps, you don’t know where to begin.
Ok, how do we help them?
Your kids need to know they’re supported and able to express their feelings in any way (besides hurting themselves, others, or breaking things that can’t get broken). In other words, they need more connection and reassurance to help them feel safe. Planning together can help build trust, connection and safety.
Things to do before the school year or track-in starts:
- Walk the school with them. Get familiar with schedules, how cubbies/lockers work, where they’ll have certain classes…
- Meet the teachers and school counselor–let the child know these are resources if they’re having a hard time
- Talk with the teachers and school counselor about your family’s situation, so they can help if the need arises
- Learn the school day routine (e.g. we do morning work, then we have a bathroom break, then we go to specials, then it’s time for snack…). For visual learners and kids under six or seven, printing out picture flash cards as a timeline can be helpful.
- Get ready for school routine a week prior to starting (easier said than done, but try it)
- Talk about fears and expectations (both for yourself and for your child)
- Brainstorm some coping strategies to handle specific grief reactions
When school starts or tracks in:
- Be consistent with limit setting (and love!)—Kids need flexibility but expectations at school don’t change (i.e. your kid’s “job” is school). Limit setting helps kids feel safe, know who’s in charge, and who will protect them.
- Behavioral issues may need additional limit setting techniques–work with your kid’s teacher, school counselor, or a community counselor
- Find ways to make homework an automatic part of the after school routine and get involved (even if you don’t know that “new math”)
- Honor your child’s fears and provide comfort (e.g. “It sounds like you had a hard day. I’m here for you to tell me as much as you’d like about it.”) Don’t forget hugs!
- Practice deep breathing whenever big feelings start to emerge
- Take a comfort object to school (e.g. a worry stone, a piece of fabric/clothing that belonged to the person who died)
- Let the child put a picture in their backpack
- Give “passes” to limit number of calls home
- Help child understand symptoms of grief
- Let them have a “mental health day” every once in a while
- Find alternatives to extracurriculars—are there family things you can do or even time quietly spent in a room together doing separate things?
- Sessions with school or community counselor—spend time expressing feelings so they don’t build up and continue to be as much of a distraction
- Check in with your own anxiety, exhaustion, stress level, need for “me time” and notice how that might be affecting your kid
- Build in time for self-care—can you get a babysitter? Who are your supports emotionally? *not your kids
- Know that your grief directly impacts your child’s functioning. The more support you have, the better your child will do managing their own grief.
- Know that you and your child are going to worry about each other because you care for one another. Provide reassurance that you might not know all the answers but you’re going to get through things together.
- If your child worries about things like, “What will happen to you while I’m at school?” or “Are you going to die too?”, this is a normal reaction. Provide reassurance and let them know if there’s a plan in place (e.g. “I’m going back to work and this is my routine. We can call each other at lunch to check in.” OR “If I died, your aunt would take care of you. I’m not planning to go anywhere but that is the plan if anything did happen.”). Eventually worries subside as children realize their worst fears aren’t consistently coming true.
- If your child continues to have difficulty or has suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors, seek out a mental health professional.
- Last, and most important, YOU ARE DOING YOUR BEST! Parenting is hard work! Take it one moment at a time. Remember: progress not perfection.
Take a deep breath.
And good luck with back to school!