There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing your child sob inconsolably following the death of a loved one. For children, grief impacts the stability of their world. Life changes radically.
If a sibling is lost, the child may feel guilty for being the surviving one and, often, is emotionally abandoned by gutted parents, who are awash in their own grief.
The death of a parent is particularly traumatic for young children. Their sense of attachment and self is rattled; the child can feel abandoned, adrift and untethered. The disconnect that comes with grief can have profound consequences. It is not unusual to see signs of depression, anxiety, fear and anger. It is very challenging for children to come to terms with their significant loss.
What can a parent do?
You become the safe container. You are the space that holds, allows and accepts all the various feelings that ricochet off the walls of your little one's heart. You are their anchor.
You do not have to know all the answers, but you do need to be authentic.
Children resonate with truth.
Children may not always understand your words, but they can feel the truth of what you are saying. When your words and feelings match, you are coherent and, in turn, your children trust you and feel safe.
Children know and understand more than we think.
Little Sean was deemed too young to go to his sister's funeral. His parents thought he wouldn't understand. While his parents and older siblings went to the funeral, Sean, home with a babysitter, climbed up onto his parents' bed and pulled down the crucifix from the wall and proceeded to bash everything within his reach. Sean knew something was wrong.
The most important thing we can do for our children is to encourage them to express their feelings.
Parents often want their kids to hurry up and be OK again. It is difficult to sit with a grief-stricken child. However, if we leap-frog over the grieving process and truncate our feelings, especially our heavier, stickier feelings, we -- both child and adult -- remain emotionally stuck. True freedom from the heartbreak is to walk through the panoply of feelings as they ebb and flow.
We need to feel to heal.
Your little one may ask, "Is it OK to be mad?" And yes, it is. Whatever the feeling -- anger, rage, sadness, fear, guilt -- give your child permission to express it. There is no judgment or attempt to minimize or dismiss the feeling. This is not the time for stiff upper lips and "Don't be a cry-baby" admonitions. This is the time to draw, act it out, have conversations via stuffed animals, and the like.
Grief and sadness are not a linear process; they move in idiosyncratic waves. Give your child permission to be just as he is. There is no right or wrong in this process.
However, if there is protracted lack of sleep, nightmares, unrelenting angry outbursts, refusal to eat, etc., seek professional help. You never have to go through this alone.
Remind your children that they are not alone.
Death can prompt fears of more death, be it their own or, most especially, the remaining parent.
Get a good-sized piece of blank paper along with crayons, markers and coloured pencils. Have your child draw themselves as a stick figure in the middle of the page. Then, ask your child to draw the people who make her feel loved, cared for and safe. Draw these identified people around her stick-figure-self. Ideally, your child will see herself flanked by a myriad of loved ones and visually grasp that she is not alone. This picture is worth a thousand words.
Watch and listen.
Your children will show you or tell you what they need.
When 6-year-old Jack lost several of his school friends in a random shooting, he took his new school pictures and with the back of each picture, he wrote his friend's name and added how he liked to play with each friend. On the front, he taped a tiny handmade cross. Jack asked his mom to give each personalized picture to the respective mom of his murdered classmates. When Jack completed his self-appointed task, he felt much better. Jack intuitively knew how to take care of himself as he expressed his jumbled-up feelings in a creative, loving way.
Honour the memory.
Ritual is another way to create meaning, express feelings and provide some closure. One idea is to use helium balloons. Have your child draw a picture or write some words to their departed loved one. This can be done on the balloon itself or a small piece of paper inserted into the balloon. In a mindful way, you and your child release the balloon to honour their loved one. This is a lovely healing ritual that has been most successful with small children and very effective in allowing the children to let go in a natural way.
Mary liked going to the cemetery with her dad several times a year. They have been doing this since her mother died. Her dad had lost his brother when he was small. When he grew up, he would take a little token -- like a small truck, rock, or an odd-shaped piece of wood -- and leave it at the grave site after each visit. The tradition continued with Mary. She painted small cards, picked flowers, found pretty shells and would always leave a little something for her mom with each visit. It was comforting to Mary.
Grief is a process of resilience.
Grief is a heartbreaking road, especially for children. However, it can be negotiated with mindful and loving care. If we adults remember to speak truth from our hearts, proceed gently, encourage a varied and creative expression of feelings, and keep the departed loved one alive through stories, good memories and ritual, our children can become more resilient, wiser from the experience and carry expanded hearts.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email email@example.com
A British study published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at pairs of adult twins, both fraternal and identical, to see how genetics might influence anxiety. The researchers hypothesized that a child with an identical twin for a father would have the same amount of anxiety as their father (or his twin) if the trait is only genetic— he or she would share the same amount of DNA with either of those adults. But they found that when it came to anxiety, children had more in common with their own parents than than they did with their parent’s twin, indicating that the relationship between the parents and children was an important factor in predicting future anxiety. If you’re suffering from anxiety, seeking treatment won’t just help you but it may benefit your children in the short and long term as well.
If you have a beloved pet, you know that it’s good for your quality of life. It’s just nice to have your dog greet you when you get home from work, or your cat cuddle at your feet when you go to bed. But research shows that a pet can be helpful for your mental health too. One recent study found that pets can help lower social anxiety in children with autism, for example. Researchers at Purdue University measured reductions in stress levels for children aged five to 12 and with autism when they were exposed to companion animals including cats, dogs, and guinea pigs.
Untreated anxiety and depression can have negative effects on your physical health as well as your mental health, which is one more reason why access to psychiatric care is so important. For example, research from the University of Edinburgh released this month found that people with anxiety or depression may have a higher risk of dying from liver disease. The connection is not yet clear and more research is needed on the biological links between liver disease and psychological distress, but the findings are considered the first to find a potential link between the two.
Air pollution has already been linked to serious health problems like asthma and heart attacks, and one new study found that particulate air pollution could also be linked to our mental health. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that exposure to fine particulate matter air pollution could cause or intensify anxiety as it causes increased oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. It’s also possible that air pollution could increase anxiety by aggravating chronic health conditions.
Research released in May found that 4.3 Americans with full-time jobs — or 3.7 per cent of adult workers--experienced an anxiety disorder over the previous year. The rate was even higher for those who didn’t have full-time employment: the rate of anxiety disorders in the past 12 months was 5.6 per cent for part-time workers, 6.9 per cent for the unemployed, and 8.9 per cent for those out of the workforce. And anxiety disorders themselves can make it hard to gain or maintain adequate employment.
Nobody knows a child better than his or her parents, but even attentive parents may be missing signs of anxiety in their kids. One study done by Yahoo Parenting and Silver Hill Hospital found that some parents are in denial that their children may be suffering from anxiety or depression. The researchers found that while almost two thirds of the parents they surveyed think their teen child is suffering from anxiety or depression, and nearly half of those teens have talked to their parents about their mental-health issues, only 18 per cent of those teens have received a diagnosis. The good news is that most parents notice their children’s struggles, and many teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about their mental health. It’s important to follow through if you suspect your own child is struggling, because quality care is available and can help.
A new survey from the University of California (UC) indicates that post-secondary students are increasingly dealing with mental-health issues, including anxiety disorders. The UC survey found that incoming college students in 2014 had the lowest self-rated emotional health in the nearly 50 years of the survey’s history. Their worries include anxiety about their ability to find gainful employment after graduation, years in the future.
It’s no surprise that bullying can cause anxiety in children who experience it, but new findings indicate that it can affect mental health even into adulthood.The study also notes the effect is stronger for children who are bullied by peers. A study published this year in Lancet Psychiatry found that children bullied by their peers are at a higher risk for the development of mental-health problems in early adulthood when compared to those who are bullied or emotionally abused by an adult. The findings make it clear that bullying is a serious issue that can have long-term health effects, even when it’s among children.
Research done in the U.K. and published this year in BMJ Open found that men who self-reported abusive behaviours towards their romantic partners were three to five times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety than non-perpetrators. The findings are consistent with past research that has found that men who either have experienced or perpetrated domestic abuse are more likely to experience mental-health issues like anxiety. Studies like these show that doctors treating men for anxiety disorders would be wise to ask about domestic abuse, the researchers said.
Bruxism — more commonly known as tooth grinding — can lead to a host of dental issues, including headaches, jaw pain, loss of tooth enamel, tooth decay, and even tooth loss. And people suffering from social anxiety often experience bruxism, even if the bouts of anxiety are short term. More than 40 per cent of the study participants with a diagnosed social phobia showed moderate to severe dental wear, compared to just over one quarter of the subject without a phobia. And 43 per cent of the group with social anxiety reported experiencing bruxism while awake, compared to only three per cent of those in the control group. People who grind their teeth while awake are sometimes unaware they’re doing it at all, since it tends to be quieter than bruxism that occurs during sleep.
Are you sleeping six or eight hours? Or are you tossing and turning every night with worry? If your sleep is accompanied by respiratory problems like snoring, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness or daytime sleepiness, talk to your doctor about anxiety, says Dr. Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist and president of Global Medical Education based in New York City.
If you're constantly feeling stressed out about your work life, family life or personal life, it may be a symptom of anxiety. Experts say if your stress is long-term, it could leave you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Not only are you stressed out, but your body also feels like it is burning out and shutting down. Masand says if you feel overworked and it is continuously getting in the way of your day-to-day functioning, it could be anxiety.
If you're constantly and unexpectedly worried, scared or frightened by something with an uncertain result, it could be a sign of anxiety, Masand says. Worrying can be reduced by observing your thoughts and feelings and learning how to take control and accept your current situation — as opposed to being fearful of it, according to PsychCentral.
If you experience stomach knots or upset stomachs that are sudden, it could be another symptom of anxiety. Masand says if your stomach difficulties are also followed by diarrhea, severe constipation, nausea or vomiting, speak to your doctor to rule out other medical conditions.
Masand says you should also be mindful of chest tightening and other symptoms related to breathing and your heart. This may include shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, pressure or fullness in the centre of the chest and/or a radiating chest, arms or back pain. If you have these associated symptoms, you need to seek emergency care immediately.
You may get a headache from time to time depending on your workflow or sleep routine, but Masand says if your headaches are common and also include weakness, dizziness or loss of sensation, talk to your doctor about getting diagnosed.
Along with chest tightness, palpitations and irregular heartbeats are also common signs of anxiety. For some, palpitations can be common — you may feel a sensation of fluttering, throbbing, flip-flopping, or pounding in your heart, according to Harvard's Family Health Guide.
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder where people experience unexpected and repeated panic attacks from time to time, according to Anxiety BC. Masand says this psychological symptom can also include being worried, scared or irritable.
Besides blurred vision, if your sight is shaky and you have a hard time keeping your train of thought together, Masand says it may be a sign of anxiety. You may feel shakiness in your arms, legs, fingers, toes or your whole body at once.
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