Vale of TearsFallout for Children
Fallout for Children
What’s done to children, they will do to society.
How can the fallout from the death of a parent be anything less than intensely distressing for a child?10 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. As they make the more or less conscious decision to put their own grief on hold in favour of supporting the grieving adult, deep and disturbing seeds of anxiety can hardly fail to be sown in their soul. If left unattended, these can seriously hinder the child’s ability to sustain mature friendships in later life, and to enjoy life’s lighter side.11
When a child senses tension, hears Mummy complain about Daddy, 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 the trouble . . . so it is not surprising that when the split comes 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 feels this and who “carries an augmented load of guilt.”12
A young child who throws a tantrum, or bursts into tears when a loved one leaves the room, is protesting in the only way it knows how to do. If this fails to bring about the desired result, the child may become unnaturally quiet. This quietness often masks 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returns – but now it has become a breeding ground for rage and anger, and can cause the child to become increasingly withdrawn or unpredictable when other forms of loss come their way.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 experienced the full extent of the emotions they are wrestling with, the stage is set for contradiction and conflict. “Why did the teenagers cross the road?” “Because their parents told them not to!”
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 divorce, separation, and bereavement, we cannot afford to become over-protective. Young King Canute deliberately set himself in the path of the oncoming tide 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.
Adopting a “china doll” approach and over-controlling children’s freedom ultimately stunts their development. More often than not it reflects the parent’s inward-looking attitude. Better just to try and maintain open communications, and to pray that all that we have shared will stand our children in sufficiently good stead to help them cope when inevitable losses come their way in later life.
Perfectionists will throw up their hands in horror and try still harder to control their behaviour – but the prayerful will persevere in the hope that they are simply “building their testimony,” en route to achieving great things for the Kingdom. May the Lord give us grace and wisdom to know when to intervene and when to remain watchful and prayerful – especially if they insist on making choices that we know can only lead to harm or 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 were making reading and writing immensely difficult for him. To our sadness, he passed through the hands of several teachers who were unable or unwilling to acknowledge the dyslexia that was so blindingly obvious to us.
The heartache has been all the greater because Dominic longs to read and write fluently, and feels 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. Of itself the report does not constitute a cure, but at least the matter has now been recognised. He is currently receiving a limited amount of outside tuition, but unless the Lord intervenes miraculously, he is likely to continue needing help as he gets older.
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?
Likewise, those brought up in Christian homes, where the parents’ hectic schedule kept them constantly busy attending to other people’s needs, sometimes struggle to feel God’s presence for themselves in times of crisis. Perhaps they have 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 in a crippling lack of confidence. Sometimes, however, it can take a more sinister turn: an overarching desire to take revenge, for instance.
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, You see the hurts
that countless children sustain every day :
victims of famine, war and disease.
You know 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
resist the temptation to push ourselves to the limit
in order to prove that we are acceptable.
May we learn instead the restfulness of love,
that yet enables much to be achieved.
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 own shortcomings
and overcome our areas of woundedness.
Make up ground that has been lost in their lives,
especially in the lives of . . . and . . . we pray.
In Jesus’ name, 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.