SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 18, 2013

Helping children cope after a grandparent's death

Dr. Kate Roberts
The Salem News

---- — Q: My children, ages 12 and 14, had a very close relationship with my father, who recently passed away. How do I help them deal with their grandfather’s death?

A: Acknowledging the loss of grandparent is very important for a child and is sometimes overlooked in our society. The specifics of how you address this loss are related to the ages of the children involved. Not all children are at the same developmental level when it comes to understanding the complexities of death, however, all children do grieve when they suffer the loss of a close grandparent. Between the ages of 5 and 9, children begin to comprehend the finality of death.

During times of loss, children experience emotions that they cannot easily express in words. They need time, guidance, patience and support to be able to share their feelings. Sometimes looking at photos and other reminders together will help draw out more specific feelings. Take whatever time is needed to listen as your children share their stories and memories of their grandfather.

While it’s important for children to maintain their everyday routines in the wake of grief, there may be times when this is not in their best interest. Some days, they may just want to be at home with you instead of going to their regular activities. Be flexible and try to support them when they feel most vulnerable and perhaps need more comfort.

You will still have your own grief to manage while supporting your children. Give yourself permission to not know all the answers. Allow yourself and your children the freedom to navigate through the grief process in your own way.

Children often feel they must contain their own sad feelings for fear of triggering sadness in a grieving parent. Find ways to reassure them that your grief will not worsen because they are sharing their sadness. Let them know that when they share their feelings, it helps the whole family heal from the loss.

The loss of a grandparent for your children is the loss of a parent for you. Take the time and space you need to care for yourself so that you can care for them. Your ability to process and accept your feelings of sadness and grief provides a model that your children can follow.

Parenting tip: When children lose a loved one, such as a close grandparent, they do experience grief, even though they may not show it.

Q: My wife and I sometimes feel that we have lost control over our teenage children. We seem to have gotten to a place where they expect everything they ask for and if we say “no,” they literally have a fit. They are 13 and 15 years old and have acted like this since they were 5 and 7. How do we change this?

A: Probably the biggest change you’ll need to make is to be comfortable with your role as an authority to your children. The most effective parents provide nurturing combined with high expectations. Although your teens may not always like your decisions, when you parent with high levels of responsiveness and equally high demands, your teens will accept your authority and have respect for you as their parent.

Consider taking these steps as you move forward:

You and your partner should make a commitment to realigning the family structure and resuming control of decision-making and limit-setting.

Together, with your partner, communicate your new expectations to your children. Choose one or two behaviors that you want to change. Examples might be managing personal belongings, showing respect and following through on chores. Set limits around the behaviors you want to change. For example, regarding managing personal belongings, set the expectation that “people are responsible for putting their belongings away after using them.” Let your children know that if this does not happen, that after one warning, you will take the items away and your child will need to earn them back. Your teens will resist these changes initially, but resolve to stick to them anyway.

Define age-appropriate responsibilities and expectations for your teens. Teenagers are capable of responsibilities that include making their own lunch, completing homework on time, bringing what they need to school and communicating in advance if they need transportation. If they don’t act responsibly and fail to meet established expectations, allow them to experience the natural consequences as a way of learning from their mistakes. In other words, don’t bail them out.

Parenting tip: Children need their parents to be authority figures, not friends. If your child listens to you, but does not always like you, then that’s a good sign you are doing your job.

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Your questions can be answered by Dr. Kate Roberts in an upcoming column. She can be reached at kate@katerobertsandassociates.com. Roberts is a licensed psychologist with offices in Salem and Hamilton. Her private practice helps parents, children and families develop strategies to work through and solve their problems.