|CHILDREN´S SEPARATION REACTIONS FROM AGE THREE AND UP
Children from three years and up already have an attachment to others from early life such as their biological parents. Or if they were in professional care from early life, they can feel attached to certain staff members. They also have a more conscious idea about themselves and the difficult separations they may have experienced.
If the children have experienced difficult separations – or long term separations – the process of grief and healing depends on the willingness of the caregivers to talk openly about what the child experienced.
THE EMOTIONAL INTERPRETATION OF LOSS: LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Children normally respond to difficult or too prolonged separations by making an emotional interpretation:
“I have been left, so I must be unloved and worthless”. It is important to understand that this interpretation is emotional and has little to do with the conscious and rational explanations they have had from caregivers – it is a feeling more than something the child “knows”. The child may have learned to repeat all the rational explanations given by caregivers, but the feeling may still be present, and the child may feel a constant shame of being and a lack of meaning with life.
IMMATURE STRATEGIES TO AVOID FEELINGS OF BEING WORTHLESS
No child can endure this feeling, so children form psychological defences in order not to feel worthless and rejected. Although these defences may seem dysfunctional, they are perfectly logical: the child tries to find a strategy to protect itself from another loss. Since children are immature their strategies to avoid pain may be very primitive. But remember that it is the best solution the child can find at the moment to avoid constant grief and depression. You can see these reactions in all children but in children who experienced difficult separations they are much more intense and sometimes destructive and consume all the energy that should be used for playing and learning
- Some children refuse to talk about the past at all in order not to get in contact with this feeling.
- Some children practice “false cynicism”: whatever happens they appear cool and take a spiteful attitude towards all invitations to being close to others “I don’t care anyway about you or friends or anyone else. Nothing matters to me, just leave me alone!” (see the avoidant attachment strategy in session 5). This attitude is understandable because it protects the child from experiencing a new loss and keeps others at a distance – losing them won’t matter.
- Some children become overly dependent and are “always a good girl/ boy”, they spend all their energy agreeing with caregivers. They try to avoid any conflict and give up having an independent opinion about anything or disagreeing with caregivers – “Tell me what to do, I don’t know myself”. They are usually afraid of making decisions because this may disagree with the expectations of others.
- Some children become “perfectionists”: they constantly try to overdo anything and focus on checking if they do things right. They are very afraid of making even small mistakes or not performing completely. Any minor challenge or mistake they make makes them desperate “No matter what I do I’m wrong, I’m a failure, I’m no good at anything no matter how hard I try. I’m an idiot, I want to die, etc.”
- Some children become constantly restless and stressed and appear to be more or less hyperactive. They can’t sit still and are never at rest, and may talk constantly in a very hectic way, making it clear that this is more than just an energetic child, it is a child who can’t relax for a moment and tries to keep the past out of the mind.
- Some children become “hermits”: they isolate themselves in their room alone with their computer or toys and refuse to go out or invite peers. They dislike any social events or invitations and find a reason to say no. The underlying emotional idea is “If I don’t make friends or socialize, no one can reject me again””
- Some children survive by hating or being angry with their parents or others they have been separated from. This keeps the pain of missing them away.
OPEN DIALOGUE HELPS CHILDREN RESOLVE AND OVERCOME LOSS – CREATING A SPACE FOR OPEN DIALOGUE
Research in separation reactions clearly shows the importance of open dialogue from caregivers.
Whenever a child talks about or works with experiences of separation, it reorganizes the emotions and thoughts about what it experienced. The feelings of loss become less and less intense for every time, and the memories and understanding become better organized. Until the child reaches the same level as other children and may feel a natural sorrow which does not disturb its state of mind and urge to play, explore and learn. The purpose of your work is not to take away all sorrow, but to help the child have less intense and chaotic feelings.
Research also shows that if caregivers deny, ignore or try to make earlier loss a small thing, children will not improve in handling their own reactions and this can be destructive to their further personality development. For example: when children were adopted in the past, this was very shameful and against social norms. This made the children feel stigmatized and they were often shocked when being old enough to understand that they were “not allowed to be who they are”. The result was that many children were severely traumatized and had very poor lives. One complaint in interviews with former adoptees and children in care is common: “Nobody ever talked to me about what was most important – the fact of having lost my parents”.
So your professional task is to work on creating a space where the child feels free and invited to have dialogues about what it has experienced in the past. This can happen through a number of activities.
You should decide how and when you will talk to the child about loss. Often it is a good idea when you are doing practical daily work with a group of children. This can be good occasions for dialogues. Be patient – this process of dialogue may take weeks or years.
Every time a child reaches a new stage of maturity and development as it grows older, it may have to talk about this again and find new perspectives.
MAKING THE CHILD UNDERSTAND ITS OWN REACTIONS AS NORMAL
- Look through the list in the paragraph above: “Immature strategies to avoid feelings of being worthless“.
- Find out which of the defences against feeling abandoned you see most often in the children you work with. When you and the children feel good and you have time, tell the children that you want to talk about how children react when they lose contact with important persons (mother, father, siblings or pets they were attached to).
- Describe the reactions you have seen in the children and tell them that this is what many children do when they have lost someone important. For example:
“Sometimes children have lost someone they loved and they are afraid of losing someone again. So they refuse to talk to others and stay in their room all day. This is what many children do and I think it is very sensible – because if they stay in their room all alone and don’t make friends with anyone, they can’t be rejected again. Here, we can understand this very well!“
- Or you can tell the child a “parallel story” from your own childhood:
“When I was your age my mother and father were very busy and I was often left alone. When I tried to make friends with other children they often rejected and mobbed me. So I decided to sit in my room all day – I didn’t want to contact others because I was sure that they didn’t like me or would reject me. When I grew up I found out that a lot of children do this, and I think it is wise – then they are protected from being rejected again“.
- You can read or invent a bedtime story for the child about an abandoned child – such as Oliver Twist (or another person from a novel in your country which the child can identify with). Along the way you can ask the child if it recognizes what the person feels and thinks.
- You can use dolls, drawings or clay to play with the child. Stories where the child is exposed to abandonment or loss of parents and finds ways to cope with the situation.
- With older children or teenagers: You can hand the child a mobile phone (or a camera with video function) and help it make a small movie or an interview about how different children reacted to losing parents or others. If you have internet, you can help the young persons find other young persons and communicate with them on Facebook or other media.
- If you have good communication with the children’s school teacher: ask the teacher to make a theme day or theme week about “Losing someone or something you love”. With the help of the teacher, all children can give examples of losing for example a grandparent or other person or thing, using drawings, theatre, etc. You can then discuss with the teacher how to help the child tell about losing someone.
Please write down how, when and where you may use one of these options, or design one inspired by this session. Take notes after working with your plan: How did it go, how did the children respond, what was difficult for you, what did you learn from trying, how will you go on?
ACKNOWLEDGE AND WAIT FOR THE CHILD’S RESPONSE
Now you have created a space where loss can be talked about openly. So don’t tell the children for example that it’s no good staying in the room all day, and don’t start giving them advice. Just listen and let the children talk freely if they want to – some children may not respond in the situation, it will take a day or two before the child returns to what you said. If a child starts talking, just nod and listen with interest and commend the child for what it thinks or feels.
Perhaps this is all you need to do for the first long time:
you help the children heal simply by talking openly about loss and showing that you are willing to share and listen. You may also define your workplace in this way, for example: “In this institution we know all about losing parents, and how children respond naturally to that. They often react by withdrawing, by “freezing their soul” and say they care about nothing, they very often feel that they must be worthless. All these reactions are very natural and healthy, but difficult to understand for others. So here we know a lot about how to help children study and get over what they have experienced before they came here. Talking about this helps children feel better, have friends again and have fun in school again. So everyone here is an expert in what it means to lose, and how to get over it. This can take a long time, but it brings you back to life and fun. Maybe you don’t believe this right now, but here we have seen many children start living again and enjoy their lives”.
POINT OUT ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF THE CHILD’S STRATEGY
When you are sure that the children feel that you listen patiently to them and understand their own reactions, you can start a dialogue about the advantages and disadvantages of the child’s strategy.
“When I sat in my room all day painting as a child, I in fact became a good painter when I grew up. That was the good side of it. But I was also very, very lonely because I didn’t dare to go out and make other friends. Every time I thought about it, I stopped just before opening the door because I was afraid of being rejected or ridiculed. So the bad side was that I had no-one to play with, and in school I never asked others if we should make friends – do you know that feeling?”
By this you are showing the child in a gentle way that its strategy in fact takes away fear in the moment, but also makes it lonely in the long run. You can then talk about how children can be afraid of being rejected again or losing someone they like.
SUGGEST ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF COPING
The next step is to make the child think of other ways to cope with the fear of another loss or a new rejection.
“One day I understood that I would be lonely forever if I stayed alone in my room. I was very afraid of someone saying no if I asked them to be friends. But my aunt told me that if you want friends, you will maybe have eight times a no but two times a yes, and those two times yes can become your best friends. My aunt told me that there is nothing wrong in being looked after by others, and that there is no reason to be ashamed of it. In fact thousands of children live without their parents. So I started inviting classmates to play after school, and my aunt helped me talk to them. Most of them said no, but one of them said yes, and we were best friends for years. Perhaps you will be strong enough to overcome your fear and start inviting others someday”
“When you feel alone you become very angry, then you start arguing, and then you feel even more sad and useless. Maybe you can try to say that you are lonely next time you are angry?“