Children’s Mental Health Week is taking place on 1–7 February and this year’s theme is Express Yourself. Sally Cotterell, a counsellor on our patient and family support team, looks at how families can support children during challenging times and help them express difficult feelings.
This year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is about helping children to find ways to share feelings or ideas through creativity. This could be through art, music, writing, dance, photography and film, and doing activities that make children feel good.
Living through a pandemic over the last year has been a challenge for everyone. But particularly for those who have faced the death of a loved one. For bereaved children, the challenges of lockdown can create additional stress. Changes to usual routines and long periods away from school can be particularly unsettling.
Children show their feelings in lots of different ways. They will also be grieving but, unlike adults, they sometimes don’t have the understanding or words to describe their feelings. It helps to talk to children about their emotions and the common feelings people have when someone they love dies.
Remembering a loved one through creative expression
Before COVID restrictions, Martlets invited bereaved children and families to get together at a ‘Making Time for Memories’ event. The aim was to share memories of loved ones in a creative, fun, child-friendly space. We wanted to create a situation where it would be ok to remember different memories – happy and sad. And to feel a range of emotions.
Some of the activities we did on the day might be useful for families to try at home during lockdown. They offer a creative way to help children express themselves and to remember a loved one.
We started with a family activity; painting cloth bags and getting everyone thinking of things they’d done together with the person they were remembering. The decorated bags were beautiful and each family member created images that were very meaningful to them. This started the conversation that ‘oh, my memories are different to yours’ and yet they were remembering the same person. It’s important that families can continue to learn from each other about the person who’s died and feel connected.
We also made memory jars and candle holders and created a memory table that we placed everything on. Memory jars are a simple yet powerful way to remember a loved one, especially for children. You think of five special memories and then divide salt into five sections, rubbing pastels into each so they are different colours. This can feel symbolic as people will say ‘I’ve lost all the colour in my life’. But then the colours return as something very tangible that they can see. It puts them in touch with memories and feelings for that loved one.
Children worry that they’ll forget their memories so the memory jar is a really easy way to remember. You’ve always got a reminder of those memories there and you can just go and touch them. The memories live on.
It’s important for children to remember that expressing yourself creatively is not about being the best at something. It’s about finding a way to connect with your feelings. And to express that to others in a way that can help you feel good about yourself.
Helping children through grief and bereavement
At Martlets, we offer bereavement counselling to families. It’s particularly important to help children find positive ways of expressing their grief. We want to reassure people that grief is a normal process that everyone will go through at some stage. We do see children for counselling, but more often what we do is support the parents in supporting the children.
There’s a section in our ‘Living with Loss’ information leaflet (available online Living_With_Loss_Booklet.compressed.pdf (martlets.org.uk) about children and grief. It’s important to look after yourself as a parent or carer and to think about what you feel comfortable sharing. We recommend that you try and be as honest as possible. Children take in a lot more than we might think they do. They pick up on emotions and behaviour that isn’t verbal, so it’s important to be as honest as you can. Explain what you’re feeling and how it’s affecting you rather than trying to push that down to protect them.
Also ensure that children understand that what they (and you) are feeling is normal and that it’s ok to express it. Children don’t grieve in the same way as adults. Children move in and out of their grief quickly. So they may ask a profound question, get the answer to it, then be off and play a minute later. That is quite normal, whereas for adults we’re left in that painful state for much longer.
As they grow, children will have different understandings of death and dying. When they’re very young they won’t understand the permanence of death. It will need to be re-explained as they develop. How they respond to the permanence of death is something they’ll need to be guided through. Simple ways to help children through grief are to talk about a loved one regularly. Encourage them to have fun and to play as they can often express their grief this way. Ensuring there’s some consistency and routine in their life is also really important.
If you’d like help and support with the issues raised, please visit our website martlets.org.uk. Or call 01273 273400 to speak to the patient and family support team.
Useful Services and information:
Cruse Bereavement Service
Cruse offer a bereavement helpline to give support as you need it. In addition you can also find resources on how to support your child on their website.
Winston’s Wish has a wealth of resources and advice on how to support your child through bereavement. This is whilst also dealing with your own grief. They also have a free phone helpline you can call.
Childhood Bereavement UK
Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying. They also support when a child is facing bereavement.
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