To Talk Or Not To Talk?
Children are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling. Storytelling creates cohesion and fosters understanding. Allowing children the freedom to tell their stories gives them a sense of self-competence and confidence as they face challenges. By becoming authors of their own experience, children can regain a sense of control and understanding following loss. Journaling, drawing, creating and communicating with others about loss promotes healing from grief and honors the child’s relationship with that which has been lost.
Sometimes, even trained professionals make a critical mistake in understanding the wisdom underlying the therapeutic value in telling one’s story. Giving people the option to talk is different than asking them to talk. Giving children space to tell their own story as they want to tell it is different than asking children to verbally express their grief or trauma. Yet this distinction is the most important takeaway I have from my entire doctorate training.
Shortly after the planes smashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, well-meaning therapists and counselors descended on local Manhattan schools to “de-brief” with the students who had witnessed the attack. The efforts of the therapists were borne from the belief that still underlies efforts of therapists today, that these children needed to “process” what they had endured; to let it all out before it seeped in and caused permanent damage. The truth is, many children who were de-briefed after 9/11 reported that the de-briefing sessions proved to be more traumatic than the tragic events themselves.
Similarly, Prince Harry recently spoke out for the first time about his mother, who died when he was 12. Harry cited it was “the way he had been forced to publicly grieve Princess Diana—and as a result hardly grieve at all—that did the most damage.” It took him almost 20 years to finally speak out about his unresolved grief and realize the healing power of telling his story his own way in his own time.
A whole body of literature emerged from this 9/11 debriefing finding, concluding that for single incident traumas (such as the death of a loved one), it is not clinically prudent to indiscriminately encourage talking about the experience. The study that first uncovered the harmful effects of de-briefing launched me into years of research to try to understand when talking is helpful and when it’s not, especially for children.
Let me spare you money and time of graduate school and distill what I learned:
Respect the child’s instincts. Well-meaning adults are often compelled to encourage children to talk, even if the child’s instincts lead the child toward coping mechanisms that do not employ verbal expressions of grief and trauma.
Give the Child Space to Tell the Story. Or Not. It is always a good idea for loving adults to let the child know that they are available to listen. But it is not a good idea to force children to tell a story they aren’t ready to tell. Some children may never want to talk about their experience, and that is OK. But you should indicate that if they change their mind, you are there.
Let the child communicate HOW they want to communicate. Verbal expression is often not the primary mode of communication about grief or trauma. Non-verbal methods such as play or art can also serve as an outlet for expression. The loss may play a starring role in the story, or it may be in the footnotes. That is OK. Give your child lots of opportunities for different kinds of expression. One family I know installed a mailbox for her middle school daughter to leave written messages as a way to tell her story in her own time.
Seek the support that you need to help your child. In my years as a child therapist, countless parents would bring their children to me because they felt their child needed to “talk to a professional” about a trauma or loss or problem. In case you haven’t gathered, I did not take the “therapeutic approach” of making the child talk to me about said issue. My job in those situations, as I saw it, was to follow the child, but indicate that I was there as a supportive adult if ever they felt the need to explore tough material. You have the power to offer that same gift to a child, and if you need support in doing so, don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional. That’s what they’re there for.
What have you learned about your children by listening to their stories? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.