Major transitions throughout a child’s life from 0 to 17yrs happen as the usual course of events of growing up. First day at nursery, subsequent schools according to age, girls starting periods and also moving house can be considered ‘common’ transitions. There are though, some transitions that not all children experience as a matter of course, these are known as ‘uncommon’ transitions and for those children that the unexpected does happen to, then have to deal with their feelings about it, the outcome and the overall effect that particular change makes to their personality.
Many children can come through a particular change unscathed, but for most children coping with the divorce of parents or the death of a close relative for instance, can not only be life-changing, but can also have a profound effect on their personality and any choices they may make in the future. In children 0-3 yrs, the uncommon transition due to divorce or separation makes no sense to them. They have no understanding of the reasons why it has happened, but the reaction they show will usually be signs of sadness and being frightened.
Sometimes (but not always) they can show ‘anger’ feelings towards siblings. It can also bring about regression in their behaviour, such as bed-wetting again or becoming clingy and not want the parent still at home to go anywhere without them. The 3-7yr primary school children will have a very similar reaction, although these slightly older children do have a tendency to show aggression – not quite so much towards siblings, but to the parent at home. They will blame the parent they live with (even though it may not have been that parents’ choice), yet feel no animosity towards the parent who left.
This makes it very hard for the parent at home to comfort them or listen to the outpouring of rage, when it is misdirected. This age group cannot be reasoned with, because the only way of doing so, is to explain the reasons why the missing parent has gone, which will be too much and unnecessary information for these tender year children to understand or comprehend. Children between 7-11yrs are at the stage of their lives where they get embarrassed easily and will be reluctant to discuss their feelings about the situation.
They are apt to become withdrawn, noncommunicative and find any activities to take part in, to help distract their mind from what’s happening to their family. This age group would not find it difficult at all to refuse to have anything to do with the absent parent, but wholeheartedly ‘champion’ the parent they live with. They will blame the ‘missing’ parent regardless of whether they know who made the decision to leave or the reasons behind it. It is probably hardest on the 12-17yr old adolescent.
This age group will have many mixed emotions to deal with, ranging from sadness, hurt, guilt and any anger to deal with, (alongside any other worries of exams, growing up worries, or further education choices they might be worried about at the time). Their anger or resentment will be aimed towards both parents. The most worrying possible effect on this group of children is, that they can be ‘drawn’ towards friends or acquaintances that ‘introduce’ them to undesirable behaviour or activities, such as drugs, shoplifting, taking unauthorised days off school or getting into trouble with the police.
To help overcome any adverse effects of this transition, every child will need to be allowed to deal with it in the only way they know, according to their age. It will help enormously if the parents do not talk about each other to the children in a derogative way, or expect the children to take sides. Sticking to a routine during any upheaval is always a good thing and encouragement for the child to voice his/her feelings about the change, is both practical and therapeutic, as it will allow the child to work through any negative feelings.
It also opens up communication lines between parents and children. Parents should also encourage the children to continue their relationship with the ‘missing’ parent by visiting or contact in some way, (such as phone or letter), unless the separation has been due to either abuse or violence. In this instance it will be necessary to take advice from a professional who is qualified in this field. These reactions are not just attributed to ‘divorcing’ parents.
Any kind of long term separation can bring about these differing types of challenging behaviour, such as a parent working away, going to prison, parents separating with the possible outcome of divorce, moving house to another part of the country or even the death of someone close. Children’s understanding of death varies greatly, from one age to another. Very young children in the 0-3yrs age, have no understanding of death. They are very perceptive at this age and can sense others’ emotions around them whether emotions of excitement, sadness or anxiety.
They will ‘automatically’ know when a person is ‘missing’ from a gathering and also recognise the presence of ‘new’ people – or people they haven’t met before. These young children can become very irritable and could show signs of stress with crying, habits in eating and the toileting habits. They depend on physical affection at this age and reassurances rather than verbal communication. It is important during this stage to keep routines consistent and continue with verbal reassurance and affection.
From 3-6 yrs, a child’s perception of death is that it is temporary and that the person who has died will come back – just like someone who has gone to work and then comes home at the end of the day. They will be very affected by the parent’s emotional state and, just the same as the 0 to 3yr olds, they can have a tendency to regress to their younger habits again, from bed-wetting, sucking their thumbs or carrying a security blanket round. They might also display tendencies of needing more physical contact and affection from family members and also from strangers.
Because this age group believe that death is reversible, they might show little or no signs of sadness or anxiety. In order to make sense of the situation they will ask the same questions repeatedly. It is important to keep control and try to answer the questions honestly, in words that will be understood. If the answer is not known, then it is always best to say ‘I don’t know’ rather than make something up. There are also many books available for the younger child to read about death and the feelings of loss and this is something parents and children can do together.
In the group of 6-9 year olds, there will be some children who will understand death and some who won’t understand it. They can have the misguided idea that death is contagious and this can bring a fear that another family member will ‘catch’ it. It can bring difficulties with school, because the child will not want to go and leave the parent at home in case the spirit comes to get you or you catch death. Increased aggression will affect this group. They may have a tendency to relate death with violence and ask who ‘killed’ him? ’ In order to help them understand their emotions, the parent will need to answer any questions honestly.
Explain to them any misconceptions about death and encourage the child to talk about the deceased and share good memories together. This will help avoid any bad dreams. Children of 9-13yr olds are almost adult in their understanding of death, there will be fewer questions from them about it and they will be reluctant to discuss their feelings. Yet, they will understand the effect on their own lives that that particular death will have, such as who will I take to school on grand-parents treat day? Any good, honest and open relationship with adults or peers will be ‘interrupted’ during this child’s bereavement.
It is vitally important to allow this group of children to express their anger. It is essential to be absolutely honest when answering any questions. It is normal for some children to try and take the role of the deceased parent. In this instance, it will be necessary to gently stop the child trying to take on those adults’ responsibilities. The adolescent 13-17yr old adolescents will have the adult understanding of death. They might have a tendency to ‘close down’ and show no emotion, because that way, they can’t be hurt. They may need someone other than parents to grieve with.
This age group once again can look for an escape route from their feelings by taking drugs, using alcohol or engaging in sexual activities. These adolescents will question religion, what it stands for and challenge others’ beliefs quite belligerently. Plans previously discussed will be difficult for them to get any excitement from. Some of this group will shut down altogether, refuse to talk about the death and will do their utmost not to think about it at all. It would be all too easy to assume these children can cope with all their emotions because they are so grown up. But they still need support and help with their feelings.
They should have any outbursts of destructive behaviour addressed and they need to realise they can talk if they want to, that the parent, peer or other adult will listen sympathetically and give them encouragement to ‘open up’ and share their feelings. Time is a great healer, especially for this group of children. Also, letting them know if they need to talk you will be there to listen. give emotional support, keep routines as familiar as possible and to adolescent children, be truthful, as being honest with any answer you give to one of their questions, determines if they ask you another or they confide in someone else.
However, in the first instance when a death has occurred, all children need to be sat down and gently told of the death. It is important to use terminology suited to the age and understanding of the child. It must be made quite clear that the child is in no way to blame, but that whoever has died will not be coming back. Obviously this will upset the child if they’re in the age group that believe death is a temporary situation, but being honest with them will help them accept it.