If you are reading this, you probably already know from experience that parenting is the hardest job you ever take on, especially when you’re doing it right! Although the cliché comes to mind that “children don’t come with a manual”, the fact is, parenting is often a lot of guesswork and trial and error that you can never really be prepared for. This is never more true than in family crisis situations when it seems like there aren’t any clear “right answers”. Although it is one of the most painstaking tasks, parents are key in helping the child make sense of their world, especially when times are tough.
“He’ll Never Remember It Anyway…”
Because I work primarily with young children from infancy to five years of age, I often get the question: “What’s the point in trying to explain anything? He won’t understand and he’ll never remember it anyway!” As counterintuitive as it may seem trauma and crisis not only affect the youngest children, but these events may be more impactful on children 0-3 years as this is the critical period for brain growth and development. It actually works the opposite way of how most people think….the younger you are, the greater the risks to the organizational structure of the brain. Disruption in these organizational structures may later manifest themselves as social, emotional, and behavioral disregulation or developmental and cognitive delays.
Sound a little scary? It is, but herein lies the path to revocation. Because of the rapid rates of brain development during early childhood, the greatest liability is also the greatest strength! The brain’s plasticity and ability to change means we can help the child counteract any negative impact! In this, the parent’s role is primary. Because you are the expert on your child and because you spend more time with your child than anyone else, you also have the most significant role in assisting your child through life’s challenges.
"Won’t Bringing It Up Just Make It Worse?”
First thing’s first…acknowledge what’s going on for your child in a way that is developmentally appropriate. For example, if a divorce is looming acknowledge that “mommy and daddy are really having a hard time getting along”, or if mom goes into a drug rehabilitation program acknowledge that “mommy is sick and isn’t able to take care of you in the way she wants to and she’s going to get some help”. This will help the child make sense of their situation and may decrease anxiety, as they often sense that something is not quite right but do not have the words to express their apprehension and discomfort about the situation. These feelings often manifest themselves as acting out behaviors. Moreover, children often assign self-blame in situations where there are none. Addressing the situation helps the child avoid any misconceptions about their role in the crisis.
“But I Don’t Want to Feed Into the Crying…”
Second, acknowledge the child’s feelings. So often we deny children’s negative feelings due to our own discomfort in handling the situation. Rather than becoming irritated with the child’s inability to regulate their difficult feelings, simply state what you think the child may be feeling in an empathic tone. Let’s go back to the divorce example: “it’s scary when mommy and daddy fight”; and for the drug rehabilitation example: “you really miss your mom”. Acknowledging feelings can normalize the situation, allows the child to feel heard so they do not escalate further, and helps the child to move through the difficult emotions while feeling supported by the most important people in their life. Responses such as “don’t cry” or “daddy didn’t mean what he said” or “mom will be back later” deny the child’s feelings, stifle their process to move past the feeling and often create rifts in the relationship as the child begins to wonder if his or her feelings are incorrect and/or unimportant. Helping the child understand their feelings through acknowledgement creates stronger bonds with their parent, which can be especially helpful and important during times of crisis.
“What if I am so overwhelmed by the crisis that I don’t think I am being helpful?”
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for some assistance in dealing with your child’s feelings and behavior. Every parent can become overwhelmed by their child from time to time, but during crisis, these feelings of helplessness can be more overpowering. I often see this when the same crisis is directly affecting the parent at well (such as divorce) rather than indirectly (such as bullying at school). It can be very difficult to offer your child empathy when you are also trying to make sense of what is happening and your world seems to have been turned upside down. Should you find yourself in such a situation, finding a licensed counselor to assist your child may be beneficial. Be sure to ask the professional about their experience in working with young children, or search for a Registered Play Therapist in your area at: http://www.a4pt.org/directory.cfm to ensure that the therapist has the experience needed to work with young children.
Play therapy is for children what individual counseling and talk therapy is to adults. When adults decide to make positive emotional and behavioral changes, they often seek traditional talk therapy to work through their challenges. In the same way, children experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties can benefit from therapy. However, even the most talkative children often have difficulties expressing their innermost thoughts and feelings through words. Instead, they feel most comfortable in expressing them though their native language, play. In fact, most behavioral concerns are a result of the child’s inability to express their feelings appropriately. Just like adult therapy, children achieve the same manners of coping, self-discovery and optimal psychosocial development through play therapy. By honoring a child-led process, the trained play therapist is able to support the child through his or her resolution of current crisis, emotional and behavioral struggles, social skill development and so much more.
Although being a parent is full of highs and lows, when given proper care and consideration, life’s lows may be some of the best opportunities for strengthening the parent-child relationship. Whether you are providing the support, or seeking for support from a professional, acknowledging the need for support will assist your child in facing life’s most difficult situations in ways that safe and effective.
Editor's Note: Crystal Nasser is a Palm Beach County Infant Mental Health Specialist and Registered Play Therapist. Crystal can be reached at www.healthymindedkids.com or (561) 352-6192. Crystal's StayMarriedFlorida profile is here.