Helping Your Child or Teen Through Difficult Times

I was watching the news last week on the most recent school shootings in Ohio and saw an interview from one of the students who was so close to death that the bullet grazed his ear. The thought of how close he was to death and how his parents could have been mourning their son takes my breath away. Life can, and most likely will, change when we least expect it. Within the last two years, I’ve either experienced for myself or known someone personally who has experienced anything from death, family illness, divorce, and life changes like having a baby or kids going off to college. Life challenges that can stop you and your family in your tracks or maybe even change the course of your life forever. Even positive changes require some adjustments.

As a parent, you wonder about how your kids are doing no matter what their age. What should you say to them? Are they old enough to understand? How will this affect them in the long term? Are they coping ok? Should I seek help and if so, from who? These are often difficult questions to answer and even professionals may not have the answers you are looking for.

Thousands of books and websites exist and hours of therapy sessions have taken place to cover this topic and answer these questions. So, I’m not going to attempt to give you all the answers in one blog. However, I can share with you a few thoughts I have learned through my personal experiences and in working with families through these experiences.

  • First, no matter what the circumstance, you are not alone. Seek out support from others who can relate to your situation through support groups, read books and online materials, and take comfort in knowing you are not the only one who has gone through this. Also seek comfort from people you trust, such as close friends, church family, or a therapist.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your emotions around your children. If you are crying, let them know you are sad, but that being around people you love is comforting. This shows them that feeling sad is normal, but also teaches them that spending time with family can be helpful when they feel sad.
  • If necessary to involve your kids, talk to them about the situation using developmentally appropriate language. This means, don’t add in adult language or unnecessary facts.
  • Kids may ask a lot of questions, but they usually want to know that they are going to be ok and that you are going to be ok. Reassure them that you are handling things as best that you can and that you are there for them when things get difficult.
  • If your child’s life will be changing, let them know what to expect. For example, if you will be spending less time at home because you are at the hospital with a sick parent, let them know you may not see them as much, but that you will be sure to add in extra time on the weekend.
  • Never put responsibility on your child or teen to solve a family problem or to be responsible for other people’s emotions. Putting a child in the role of parent is never healthy.
  • Give your child or teen an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about what is going on. This can be through drawing pictures, talking to you about how they feel and asking you questions, or even just crying on your shoulder.
  • Challenges and disappointments in life are inevitable and part of being a child is to learn how to handle difficult situations. Use this opportunity to model for your child and teach your child how to handle hard times.

When to seek help: Expect that difficult situations usually means your child is dealing with it one way or the other. Just like all adults will react different, so will kids. You may see irritability, anger, sadness, behavior changes, or changes to how they sleep or eat. Some kids may become more clingy to you and others may isolate themselves. Stay in contact with their teachers or coaches as well so you know how they are doing at school or daycare. Being a professional counselor, I lean towards seeking help sooner rather than later. There is no harm in asking questions or at least getting a consultation. When deciding when to seek help, the key is to look at how extreme the behavior is and how long it has been occurring. If this goes on for weeks, escalates, and/or is affecting their functioning significantly, seek professional help. As a parent, you know your child better than anybody so use that parent instinct. If you don’t know a mental health professional, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns and seek a referral from them.

Families will always face challenges and change. Trust that you have the strength and support to get through your special circumstance and seek help when you need it. In future posts, I will talk about more specific situations, like divorce, illness, introducting a new baby, adoptions, and so on. If you have a request, feel free to send me a message! Questions and comments on this topic are welcome!

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

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