Ghosts and Superheros: How Children Cope with Loss and Grief

shadowRecently Christopher has been preoccupied with ghosts (thanks in part to his older brother, who in typically older brother style regaled his little brother with horrific stories of things that creep and bump in the night). We’ve talked to him about the guardian angels, who protect him through the night. But the imagination is a powerful thing, and several times Christopher has wound up in our room (on the floor in a sleeping bag).

His preoccupation with ghosts and superheros borders on the obsessive, I think … and yet, I hear that this is not uncommon with children who have experienced trauma. It’s part of the way they process what has happened. For Christopher, the superheros (such as his Pokemon DS) provide a distraction and escape from Big Feelings that just won’t quit.

I recently came across this article that describes the “Basic Ph Model” for how children cope with ongoing trauma and stress. This would have real applications for children who have experienced a real — and not just anticipated — loss. Many foster and adopted children would fall in this category, as well as children who has lost a parent through death or estrangement through divorce.

The article describes the six “copying styles” most frequently used by children, which include:

*  Beliefs (drawing comfort from their family’s religious and cultural values, especially through meaningful ceremonies)

*  Affects (venting feelings and emotions, often by talking with a trusted adult)

*  Social (seeking support and comfort from friends and extended social network)

*  Imagination (processing feelings through creative outlets such as drawing, play therapy, creative writing, etc.)

*  Cognitive (processing through problem solving and planning safety contingencies)

*  Physiological (physical activity as a way of providing a welcome distraction, giving the child a “break”)

Author Frank Zenere observes about this last strategy: “Directed physical activity has a dual benefit, allowing necessary buffer time and permitting informal processing of traumatic experiences to occur in a non-threatening format. Opportunities for formal and informal physical activities should be abundant.”

One of the hardest things any parent can do is help a child navigate the uncertain currents of loss and trauma. However, knowing what to look for — and how to adjust our approach to accommodate the needs of a particular child — can make all the difference.

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2 Comments

  1. It is important to recognize that when a child is told that a loved one is dying (or fills in the blanks because they AREN’T being told) – grief begins at that point. All of those coping styles mentioned are enlisted by children who are trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense; something that is terrifying and very upsetting. Grief is about a sense of loss and impending loss causes grief reactions as well.

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