Vale of Tears

Fallout for Children



Fallout for Children

What’s done to children, they will do to society.
Karl Menninger

How can the fallout from the death of a parent be anything less than intensely distressing for a child?10 One of the most pressing long-term complications involved is that bereavement catapults children into taking on many of the roles and responsibilities of the missing parent long before they are really ready to do so.

“Parental inversion” robs children of much of the fun and freedom of childhood. Consciously or subconsciously they often put their own grief on hold in favour of supporting the grieving adult – which can leave deep and disturbing seeds of anxiety that surface later in life in different ways. Unless addressed, these ‘roots and shoots’ can seriously hinder the child’s ability to enjoy life’s lighter side, and to sustain mature friendships in later life.11

When a child senses tension, hears one parent complaining against the other, or lies in bed hearing arguments, she wants to do all in her power to keep them together. She hears comments that make her think that she must be the cause of all the trouble . . . so it is not surprising that when the split comes [whether through divorce or bereavement] she interprets it like this: “It’s my fault. I have failed in my attempts to keep them together. That message goes deep.” It is especially the oldest child who is likely to carry the full weight of this and who therefore “carries an augmented load of guilt.”12

A bereaved young child who throws a tantrum, or bursts into tears when a loved one leaves the room, is protesting in the only way he or she knows how to do. If this fails to bring about the desired result, the child may become unnaturally quiet. This quietness may be welcomed by adults, but it may be masking a profound resentment, which may continue even when the loved one returns. But now it has become a breeding ground for rage and anger, and can cause the child to become increasingly withdrawn or unpredictable when other forms of loss come their way.

Matters often come to a head during adolescence, which is a time of loss as well as of exploration. During these years, when they are preparing to leave home, our children are already becoming markedly less family-oriented. More concerned now with what peers think and feel than with our family values, teenagers want to behave in an adult manner, yet continue at the same time to do the most unadult-like things.

Hypersensitive lest they be humiliated in front of their peers, and acutely unwilling to believe that anybody else has ever experienced the full extent of the emotions they are wrestling with, the stage is set for contradiction and conflict.

No wonder teenagers react unpredictably when further loss occurs. It is like throwing oil onto a fire. Warning signs to indicate that trauma may be present include disturbing dreams, along with emotional detachment and age-inappropriate behaviour.

While it is right to do all we can to protect children from the side-effects of separation, divorce and bereavement, we cannot afford to become over-protective. Young King Canute deliberately set himself in the path of the oncoming tide not to demonstrate any supposed power over Nature, but rather to remind the fawning flatterers who surrounded him that he was as much subject to the laws of Nature as anyone else. Trying to shield children from all pain is equally as futile.

More often than not, adopting a “china doll” approach, and over-controlling a child’s freedom, reflects the parent’s inward-looking attitude. Ultimately it stunts their development. Better just to try and maintain open communications, and to pray that all the right things that have been shared will stand their children in sufficiently good stead to help them cope when inevitable losses come their way in later life.

Perfectionists throw up their hands in horror and try still harder to control their behaviour – but the prayerful will persevere in the hope that their children are “building their testimony,” en route to becoming more fully developed and rounded people. May the Lord give us grace and wisdom to know when to intervene and when just to remain watchful and prayerful – especially when they insist on making choices that we know are highly likely to lead to harm and disillusionment.

It does not take anything as radical as a literal bereavement to upset a child’s sense of stability. It was obvious to us from an early age that our youngest son, Dominic, had learning needs that made reading and writing extremely difficult for him. To our sadness (and frustration!) he passed through the hands of several teachers who were either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the dyslexia that was so blindingly obvious to us.

The heartache was all the greater because Dominic longs to read and write fluently, and felt intensely grieved at being unable to keep up with the rest of the class. It was a relief when a detailed report finally highlighted the issues we had long since identified. It is a great joy to look back now many years later and to see the benefit that that has brought in the whole way that he has developed.

When children regale adults (and each other) with a string of problems in order to elicit sympathy, it is often because they are compensating for some internal sense of loss or inadequacy. Unaware of the real reasons behind these attitudes, teachers may dismiss these children as “attention seekers.” “Attention-needy” would be a better description – a label that embraces an ever-growing number of children in our increasingly dysfunctional society.

Some of the losses that children complain about appear relatively trivial to adult eyes. “The house isn’t burning down,” the parent protests, “so why make such a fuss?” Have we perhaps forgotten the heartache we felt when a favourite toy got broken – or when we were repeatedly overlooked or excluded as a child? It is altogether too much like the deeply unsympathetic adage, “Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt.”

Those brought up in Christian homes, where the parents’ hectic schedule kept them constantly busy attending to other people’s needs, likewise often struggle to experience God’s presence for themselves – especially during times of crisis. Perhaps they develop an inbuilt expectation that God, too, will always be too busy for them. This can undermine their sense of being unconditionally loved, and leave them insecure about their own identity.

At a still more serious level, how can children who grow up witnessing violence and abuse in their home fail to carry the imprint of this into their adult life? Most commonly this manifests itself in a crippling lack of confidence. Sometimes, however, it can take a more sinister turn, such as an overarching desire to take revenge.

This is the dark backdrop against which so many are growing up today. May we help children to grieve constructively by helping them to understand at least some of the factors that make abusers as they are, without in any way minimising the seriousness of their actions.

Reflect and Pray

Lord God, You see the hurts
that countless children are sustaining every day:
victims of famine, war and disease.

You know, too, the hearts of those who have been scarred
by violence and abuse.

Where earlier attachments were cruelly severed,
or never allowed to develop,
we ask You to grant special resilience and protection
and to bathe each damaged soul
in Your special light and love.

May those of us who feel ourselves to be a failure
as the result of pain in our upbringing
resist the temptation to push ourselves to the limit
in order to prove that we are acceptable.

May we learn instead the restfulness
of Your empowering love,
that yet enables much to be achieved.13

Where we, as adults,
have failed to provide our children
with the care and support they required,
we confess our failings to You.

Forgive us for the heavy price our children pay
when we fail to address our shortcomings
and overcome our own areas of woundedness.

Make up ground that has been lost in their lives we pray:
especially in the lives of . . . and . . .

In the name of Jesus who always has time for children. Amen.


10 There are a number of books on the market geared to helping explain death to children, e.g. Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. (2002), Help Me Say Goodbye, by Janice Silverman, Fairview Press, U.S. (1999), and Sad Isn’t Bad, by Michaelene Mundy, (Elf-Help Books for Kids).
11 Repairing the damage caused by a fearful or repressed childhood is a skilled and important task. John and Paula Sandford have written powerfully on this subject in their splendid study, Transformation of the Inner Man. Victory House. We highly recommend their insightful writings.
12 Green, R. God’s Catalyst. (1997) Christina Press.
13 Listen to this series of short meditations that explore the word ‘nuach’ – the deep settled and empowering rest that the Lord sends.