Dealing with grief & sadness By Dr Sarah Whyte

One of the biggest challenges for Third Culture Kids (TCKs) is dealing with the grief caused by multiple losses. Those losses can range from losing people as close friends move away, losing homes as you move house or simply losing a sense of familiarity when you move somewhere new.

Of course, the sense of grief or sadness caused by losses can also be experienced by other children and young people who are not TCKs. Everyday occurrences for children like arguing with friends or moving house can generate a great deal of sadness. Many educators and youth workers don’t receive any formal training in how to support their students with grief or loss. As a result, I’ve heard a number of misconceptions in my work. I’m going to share some of those misconceptions with you in this article, along with how you might tackle them.

Misconception 1: Uncomfortable feelings are ‘negative’

In our many experiences, some feelings are more comfortable than others.  Emotions like excitement, joy or wonder usually feel pleasant and many people seek to promote feeling positive.  While positivity certainly boosts resilience (see Barabara Frederickson’s work for more details), it’s usually not realistic—or healthy—to feel positive 100% of the time. We may experience sad or traumatic events which generate more uncomfortable feelings, such as sadness or grief. In the face of difficult experiences, it’s normal to have these feelings. If we refer to those feelings as ‘negative,’ children may hear the message that those feelings are undesirable, and any expression of those feelings should be avoided.

How to help

Try encouraging children to view their feelings purely as information. When you experience a particular feeling, it’s usually for a reason. You can try asking what might be generating that feeling, or what message the feeling is trying to tell the child. Changing children’s perspectives on ‘negative’ feelings can be so powerful in helping them learning to self-regulate their emotions.

Misconception 2: Talking about uncomfortable feelings makes them worse

In this case, the opposite is true: NOT talking about uncomfortable feelings means they tend to linger or intensity. It’s essential to talk about uncomfortable feelings by naming exactly how you feel. As soon as that happens, the emotional reaction begins to subside.

How to help

Simply allow children the time and space to explain and express how they feel: good, bad or a mixture of feelings. If you’ve ever tried to offer a rational solution to someone who is emotionally heightened, you’ll know that it doesn’t achieve a great deal. To be able to deal with a situation rationally and logically, it’s essential to address the feelings around it first.

Misconception 3: Children are resilient

If this is your belief, it’s possible that you may be missing opportunities to support children in developing their resilience. Some children are resilient, of course, while others aren’t. For other children, they may have been resilient, but their experiences of loss of grief have chipped steadily away at their sense of resilience. It’s helpful to think of resilience as something which requires input and attention to maintain, rather than an established, static state.

How to help

Martin Seligman’s model of optimism is a wonderful tool for developing resilience in the face of challenges. His model involves explaining the event as temporary, as well as being isolated to one particular domain in life. The final part of the model is to consider the effort you can put in to change the situation. Applying Martin Seligman’s model results in a more resilient approach and the ability to move forward more quickly from adversity.

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