For season 1, episode 11 of the Gladney ReFramed Podcast, the topic focused on grieving children at school. Often a topic overlooked in children, grief is absolutely critical to identify and recognize within young people—especially those who are adopted or are in/have been in the foster care system. Emily Morehead, licensed professional counselor (LPC) and weekly host for the ReFramed podcast, interviewed LPC Mary Kathryn Nader about grief in children. This was the second time that Nader has been a guest on the podcast.
Mary Katherine Nader is an LPC and a grief expert. She has experience working with grieving families and children in both private practice and support centers such as the WARM place in Texas. She has her own practice called Hope Counseling and Consulting Services, PLLC. After working with the community for an extended period of time, she is now at Gladney University (through the Gladney Center for Adoption) as an educator for school professionals. Her workshops have been featured in a vast number of places, including communities and schools. As shown by her notable experience in the topic, Nader is a leading expert on grief and how to handle it in children.
As the podcast begins, Morehead discusses the immense pressure that children are put through in the education system by standards automatically set for them. She emphasizes the fact that many children are being forced into a cycle to “learn and grow and pass all these standardized testing,” yet are in an intense state of grief. Naturally, they are not up to their full capacity of being a student.
Before speaking on the symptoms grieving students might show, Nader brings up a valid point about how adults see grief in children. Often, adults can overlook or misinterpret grief, as well as fail to realize how much a child may have actually lost. She emphasizes that children lose more than the obvious before they begin experiencing grief. In one period of loss, they can lose a family, friends, teachers, counselors, and a home within a few months—sometimes even quicker than that.
Nader describes how these constantly changing environments produce high levels of anxiety, sadness, lack of focus and concentration, and zoning out in kids. A complete change in behavior is possible as well, ranging from being super outgoing and throwing themselves into play and activities, to complete social withdrawal.
Some of the things she described echoed the experiences of children who have been to multiple foster homes in a short period of time. Imagine the toll that must take on a young mind, while trying to keep up with everything else in life they are supposed to.
Nader encourages families and those that work with youth to alter their perspectives of how they would normally interact with grieving children.
So many children experiencing this in the public school system often fall between the cracks, allowing trauma and grieving to continue for much longer than necessary. With recognition and assistance, these innocent children are able to do much better on a day-to-day basis, and in the future; educationally, psychologically, and developmentally. Although this may be challenging for teachers who already have to handle a large amount of kids in a not-so-large space, as Morehead points out, it is necessary and not overwhelming to simply question why the child is acting the way that they are. Nader states, “There is always something behind the behavior.” Keeping this in mind when engaging with children from different backgrounds is key.
Transitioning into a conversation about disclosure, Morehead and Nader discuss what to share with the teachers, counselors, and other adults in your child’s life. Essentially, you should ask yourself what you are comfortable sharing. If the child is old enough, Nader encourages parents to involve them as much as possible to let them know that they have a voice in their own stories. She suggests having a meeting with everyone involved at school with the child present so that they can share what they feel needs to be shared. The parent, teacher, and child can create a plan for what happens when the child becomes anxious or frustrated during the school day. Developing a support system for the child, and determining what is and isn’t effective for them to be able to process their grief, are some other ways to make the cold feel more comfortable with their situation.
Nader provides some ideas of ways to help children cope with grief at school. She describes her experience working in schools with grieving children to find what helps them best when they become anxious, while still being able to attend class and other academic functions as normal. One example she gave was giving a child a “cool-down jar.” This is usually a mason jar filled with a liquid sparkly substance that you can shake or watch the glitter flow in. It has a similar concept to lava lamps, which can be very relaxing to watch. Another example was having a picture of someone they loved who may have passed or is no longer in their life placed somewhere close that they can look at when they get sad. She also discusses how normal breaks for kids such as lunch and recess can be a struggle for grieving children. Having a backup plan for these times can provide a child with an outlet and an alternate plan for when they aren’t feeling up to par. Something to remember, however, is that every child will not grieve the same way, and may have different needs than other children. There is no cookie-cutter process for helping a grieving child.
Something important that Nader emphasizes throughout the podcast is giving back the control the child has lost through their traumatic experience and the grieving process. When a child feels like they don’t have any control over his or her situation, it can make them much more stressed and anxious—only adding to the problems he or she is already experiencing. Retaining this control can help them build trust with their support system and transition back to “normalcy” as easily as possible. An example that Nader provides is going back to school after a traumatic event. She suggests having a parent-teacher meeting to discuss the situation, then meeting with the child to decide what they want to share, if anything, and how they would want to do it. Again, this goes back to the question of: What is my child comfortable with?
One of the best suggestions Nader gives is respecting your child’s place. For children, and even some adults, coming up with the words to express how they’re feeling can be challenging. Journal writing can serve as an outlet for a child’s feelings and a communication method with their parent. For example, Nader talks about how she and her daughter have a journal where the daughter can write if she needs to have a discussion with her mom. In these situations, the parent will either initiate the conversation, or write something back in the journal. This can take the pressure of trying to come up with the correct words about how they’re feeling in front of someone off a child, and facilitates open conversation between parent and child.
If the grieving child is an adopted or foster child, it can be difficult to decide how much you need to share with teachers. Nader advocates, of course, involving the child as much as possible. She also emphasizes that parents might not be able to share the story at all. Rather, share what the child is struggling with, and what has worked for your child to handle those behaviors.
Personally, I think discussing with your child whether or not they want to share their adoption story with their peers, teacher, or anyone they might encounter is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. Setting the boundaries about their background will establish a precedent for respecting their story. Sharing every detail with everyone is probably not the right thing to do, no matter what the circumstances are. However, as with any nuanced situation involving a child, some things must be shared in order to protect them from harm. For example, if your child experienced trauma prior to joining your family and this has affected them psychologically, this would need to be shared. Their thinking, behavior, and interpersonal relations in the classroom could be affected by this. By letting their teacher or the school staff know, it will alleviate any potential conflicts or unnecessary punishments for your child. Doing this, no matter the setting—can make a huge impact on your child’s developmental experience. As he or she grows older, it will be easier for them to decide on their own how much they want to share with others. If you protect their story from their birth, you will prevent them from having to clean up the mess of preconceived notions about them later on.
Next, Morehead and Nader discuss the frequency of moves that foster children can experience. Morehead shares that the families Gladney works with, on average, move between six to ten times during their time in the foster care system—which is almost unbelievable. That’s six families, six new schools, six new sets counselors and teachers. When asked, Nader goes back to her core philosophy about responding to grieving children: ask them what would make them comfortable. A few of the suggestions she gives that are commonly done include visiting the classroom prior to the first day of school, having a one-on-one discussion with the teacher, and creating something special to put on the child’s desk or in their locker. What are some things they aren’t comfortable?
When thinking about how grieving looks different in parents and children, Nader emphasizes the importance of understanding that no one—regardless of age—experiences grief the same. She states that it is important to get rid of any assumptions you might have about a stereotypical grief process; that can cloud your judgment and affect how you treat those who are grieving. After all, there is not a right or wrong way to grieve. If a parent is grieving at the same time that a child is, Nader says it is important for parents to seek care for themselves. Showing your child it’s okay to seek therapy and to deal with their issues in a forward manner can influence him or her in such a positive way. It also “takes the burden off the child,” who may feel compelled to take care of their parents and sacrifice their own grieving process. Morehead states that there is “beautiful permission” in doing this.
When schools experience a crisis, Nader suggests several ways to help students cope, including artwork projects, having multiple counselors available, support groups, and “comfort dogs.” Making sure that children have a way to come together and bond during a tragedy is one of the most beautiful experiences they can have. Teachers and school staff should have ample resources ready to handle the emotional turmoil that comes when a tragedy happens.
Before ending this discussion, I want to remind families of the effect that COVID-19 can have on grieving children. This pandemic is like nothing anyone in our time has ever experienced, and it has certainly proved to be a large adjustment. With schools and therapy going virtual, kids are losing the social connections that would help them cope in many ways. Incorporating as much family time and proactive, fun activities into your day will make a world of difference on your child’s mental health.
Several useful resources were provided for families during the podcast, including National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) and National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC). These centers provide educational materials such as webinars and in-person training for both professionals and families. The NCSCB has a 24-hour crisis hotline for schools experiencing major events, but places an emphasis on helping students get the proper support needed and initiate recovery. The NAGC has an annual conference, reference guides, educational resources, and a membership program. This organization also funds grants to research the effects of grief on children, develop training programs, developing therapeutic interventions and treatments for grief, and relief funds for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Access to the podcast can be found here.