I was at a party recently to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday. It was a wonderful, multi-generational gathering of adults and children of all ages, and being with them in person, during this COVID reprieve, was a true joy.
One of the guests was a mother who had a toddler with her. The child was doing typical toddler things, playing and running around and basking in the attention. The mother said something to the effect of: I love this but also can’t wait until it’s over because it’s wearing me out.
Another mother, a long-time friend, and I exchanged a look. She and I have raised our now almost-grown children together. We have children in college, she and I; yet the memories of earlier days are always fresh.
“It’s never over,” my friend said to the young mother, who looked immediately distressed.
“It’s never over,” my friend repeated, “but this part? (she gestured to the toddler) It’s over in a blink. This part doesn’t last forever, we promise.” I nodded.
Later in the evening my friend and I were reminiscing about when our own children were active toddlers and we, the mothers, were always running ragged in the particular way that mothers of toddlers often do. We thought we would never graduate from that stressful time.
But we did, as mothers and fathers have done for time immemorial. We lived through toddler years, first grade, middle school, first dates, and more.
And now, looking back, it is easy to see what we couldn’t see when we were in the thick of those early years: They’re impermanent, even though they don’t feel that way. And what mattered was being available, being present, in a specific way, at that specific time, while it was happening.
It can be so very hard to see the fleeting nature of phases and situations, especially when they are unfamiliar. That fleeting nature, and the stress that often accompanies times of fast change, can make it hard to stay in the present moments, to “show up.”
So, as I’d been looking through the archives of the blog, I had been thinking of this impermanence relative to preparing family dinner when my children were younger. What I couldn’t see then was how routines and dynamics would change as my children grew older. The weekly plans that I made and the way I approached that work were specific to that era, and they don’t work for me, or my family, the same way now.
It wasn’t really about cooking, though.
What I was thinking I might write about was being present for children, in a particular way, in the particular time of young childhood – pre-kindergarten through elementary school years. The strategies and tactics I used when my children were in those years, when I was struggling with the temporary stress of that time (stress that felt like it would last forever) might still work, now, for families with younger children. That’s where I was planning to head with this idea.
And then the day brought tragic news, and I was thinking in a very different way about impermanence, parenting, and children. I was thinking about the hard and essential work for parents to be present in a specific, important way, at an important time, when children are grieving.
The reference will stay vague; it isn’t my story to tell.
What I’ll close with, instead of notes about cooking or meal planning, is something our clinical team at Kindred Place put together to help parents help children through sad times, when the impermanence of life looms large. If that is your situation, I hope this will be useful.
Be well. Nurture your heart. Show up for yourself and for those who need you, especially when they are your children.
Being “Present” for your Children when Grieving a Loss
(Adapted from the work of Daniel Siegel, M.D., & Tina Payne Bryson, PhD; The Power of Showing Up.)
Helping children understand the death of loved ones and friends is an opportunity for parents to provide these “four S’s” in response to the needs of children and adolescents:
Safe. Parents have two primary jobs when it comes to keeping kids safe and making them feel safe. The first is to protect them from harm; the second is to avoid becoming a source of fear and threat.
Strategies for promoting safety include being physically available for your children, giving them your full attention and helping them know that they are safe to voice their feelings and thoughts around the subject of death and loss. Be willing to sit with them, physically next to them, and answer questions they may have. Help them feel supported in the safe harbor of your presence.
Seen. Truly seeing our kids is about three main things: (1) attuning to their internal mental state on a profound and meaningful level; (2) coming to understand their inner life; and (3) responding to what we see in a timely and effective manner. This three-step process helps children feel acknowledged as individual, magnificent human beings.
Strategies for helping children feel “seen” start with letting your curiosity lead you to take a deeper dive. Be diligent in observing your children. Learn and understand how they are experiencing and relating to the sudden loss of a friend or loved one. Make space and time to observe words, expressions, physical movements, and behaviors. Provide opportunities for your children to move toward you for acceptance and care. Really “showing up” and being present at this difficult time will shore up your children’s sense of self in the midst of uncertainty and possible fear.
Soothed. When a child is in a state of internal distress, that negative experience can be shifted by an interaction with a caregiver who attunes to and cares for them. They might still suffer, but at least they won’t be alone in their pain. Based on this parent-directed “inter-soothing,” the child will learn to provide “inner soothing” for themself.
Strategies to promote inner self-soothing include building a calming internal toolkit. Before emotional situations arise, work with your child to develop simple tools and strategies to help them calm and regulate all the “feelings and thoughts” they are having (even if they don’t understand that they are having all the feelings/thoughts associated with the loss). Offer your P- E- A- C- E: When your kids are upset, give them your presence, engagement, affection, calm, and empathy.
Secure. The fourth “S” is actually a byproduct that results from following the first three suggestions. We give our kids a secure base when we show them that they are safe, that there’s someone who sees them and cares for them intimately, and that we will soothe them in distress.
Strategies to promote a secure base include investing in a relational trust fund. Each time your child needs you and you show up in response, it builds trust. Your child knows they can rely on you to meet their needs. They become more and more confident that you can help and support them in weathering the difficulties they face.