Teaching children how to cope from an early age will benefit them when tragedy inevitably strikes
My daughter, Olivia, and her friends recently were celebrating their impending college graduation. At the party, Olivia’s best friend accidently fell several stories from an open window. There were frantic attempts to resuscitate him, an ambulance ride and then death upon arrival at the hospital.
It was moving to see the range of grief and trauma among these young people as memorials and a funeral proceeded. I have known some of these young adults – several are New Orleans transplants in New York – for years and watched them grow up.
The experience made me think about how carefully we as parents have protected – even hovered over – our children as they grew. We want to guard them from sadness and grief, perhaps indefinitely. In an attempt to comfort after the accident, a friend of mine said, “These kids are too young to be grieving.” This incident was a tragic capstone on the childhood of those involved, but there is a blessing here.
Coping is an important skill
As much as we want our children to be spared from tragedy, it is an inevitable part of life. Those who take risks, challenge themselves and explore – rather than stay safely in the comfort zone – put themselves in stressful situations. So, it could be argued that the richer one’s life, the more one is faced with sadness, loss and failure. Grief itself can be a form of enrichment.
The process of grief is as varied as individual personalities. Some grieve in healthy ways; others may become self-destructive and never recover. It’s helpful to remember that the process of coping is a skill. And this ability can be refined with learning fueled by the will to prevail – even after a tragedy.
Healthy grief doesn’t mean one becomes hardened or avoids experiencing intense sadness, anger and anxiety. Coping is carrying on and not getting stuck. It is emotional mastery.
Children need to experience adversity
Parents can begin to teach their children to cope from an early age. In her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel writes that unless our children venture forth in the world, they will never learn to master it. While it is right to keep our children from being repeatedly hurt or traumatized, we must not always shield them from adversity.
Death, loss, failure and hardship are not stumbling blocks in development. Mogel teaches that shielding children from these inevitabilities can handicap them. If children never encounter difficulties they do not learn to be strong. So, when difficult things happen, create opportunities to listen, answer questions and model healthy reactions.
Parents also must be aware of how they frame events. We might ask ourselves: “Is this problem traumatic or just a hardship that is practice for coping?” Parents who worry excessively about their child’s emotional ups and downs, and try to wipe away all sources of stress in their child’s life are not modeling healthy coping.
Teaching your child now will help her later in life
Our job is to teach our children to navigate their world in childhood as well as adulthood, not to over-protect them. But to learn this, a kid has to have some challenges and problems – along with a teacher to listen and guide. He must be taught to face his challenges with courage and solve problems independently after our guidance is done.
The tragedy at the college party will never be forgotten by those who were there and the rest of us who mourn his loss, especially his parents. It was a random accident that should not have happened but did.
The only bright spot is that Wyatt leaves behind his spirit and an opportunity for emotional resiliency, strength and an exercise in grief to those who loved him. Even in his death he continues to inspire us and teach important lessons.
In loving memory of Wyatt Tyler.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.
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