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8 Strategies for Working with Grieving Children
10 CEUs 8 Strategies for Working with Grieving Children

Section 11
Separation Distress in Children

Question 11 | Test | Table of Contents | Grief CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

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On the last track we discussed hyperactivity resulting from loss.  Topics we discussed regarding hyperactivity resulting from loss include manifestations of hyperactivity resulting from loss and the five feelings technique.  There are five steps in the five feelings technique.  The five steps are introducing the five feelings, inventorying the five feelings, avoiding anticipating or feeding the child answers, asking clarifying questions, and repeating the technique at later sessions if necessary. 

On this track we will shift the focus away from grief relating to death and discuss grief and explaining separation. Children who experience grief from separation may benefit from having the nature of the separation explained to them. The four types of separation discussed on this track may be difficult to explain to children. The four types of separation we will discuss on this track are parental rejection, incarceration, mental illness, and alcohol and drug abuse.

As you play this track, consider grieving children you are treating and whether or not this information is applicable.  If the information is applicable, you might consider ways to implement it in your next session.

Four Types of Separation

Type #1 - Parental Rejection
First, let’s discuss parental rejection and grief. As you know, parental rejection may be intentional, as in some adoption cases. Or parental rejection may be unintentional. For example, Elaine, age 42, was a foster parent for 6 year old Kayla. Kayla’s biological mother had lost custody of her children when she was arrested a few months after Kayla’s fourth birthday. 

Elaine stated, "Poor Kayla is sad all the time. And she’s very insecure. I have tried to help build up her self-esteem, but nothing seems to work. Her caseworker said Kayla just misses her mother, but I think it’s deeper than that." 

I stated, "Kayla is displaying signs of grief because she is experiencing a loss which is, to her, similar to death. In fact, Kayla may be sensing separation as desertion through feelings of abandonment. As you are aware, this feeling of abandonment can make children like Kayla feel rejected. However, the reason for parental rejection is usually something in the parent’s life or background. For example, immaturity, poor parenting skills, addiction, or personal and financial difficulties may have caused Kayla’s mother to unintentionally reject her children." 

Kayla’s sense of rejection and abandonment led to self blame as well as lowered self esteem.  Have you found, as with Kayla, that when a child is placed with another family because of parental rejection, the likelihood for self blame is strong? Helping Kayla determine that the rejection was precipitated by something about which she had no responsibility or choice was a productive method for helping Kayla cope with parental rejection. Think of your Kayla. Does your grieving client experience grief and self blame due to parental rejection?

Type #2 - Incarceration
After Elaine and I helped Kayla determine that she was not reason her mother left, I decided to explain incarceration to Kayla. Explaining incarceration involves explaining that adults must go to jail when it seems that they have broken rules for which jail is the usual punishment

I asked Kayla, "What are some of the rules at your house?" Kayla identified some of Elaine’s house rules. I asked Kayla, "Do you ever break any of them? And if you get punished what happens? And then it’s over right? Well, your mom made a mistake for which staying in jail is the grown-up punishment. While your mom’s in jail you need someone to take care of you, because kids don’t go to jail with their parents." 

The news of her mother’s imprisonment caused Kayla to wonder if her mother was a terrible person. I stated, "You know what kids tell me about breaking rules? They say sometimes they just want to do something so badly that they do it and hope they don’t get caught. I guess your mom may have been thinking kind of like a little kid in that way." Think of your grieving client.  Could he or she, like Kayla benefit from a thorough understanding of his or her parent’s mistakes? 

Type #3 - Mental Illness
In addition to incarceration and parental rejection, the third type of grief from separation other than death we will discuss is caused by mental illness. Kayla suffered grief and self blame because she felt rejected by her mother. Another type of separation which causes grief in children can be separation due to mental illness. If a parent or guardian requires outside help to function as a result of mental illness, children may have questions and concerns. But if hospitalization becomes necessary, children may experience separation grief. 

9 year old Stevie, whose father was hospitalized after being diagnosed as schizophrenic and a danger to himself, stated, "I’ll take care of my dad."  I stated to Stevie, "Your dad needs another grown-up to keep him safe. Your job is to be learning the things 9 year olds are supposed to be learning, instead." After explaining to Stevie how his father’s condition made it difficult for him to take care of Stevie, Stevie stated, "I’ll just wait for him, then." 

I stated, "I hear how hard this is for you and I wish it could be different. But you deserve the things you need right now. Food, clothes, hugs, and someone to have fun with. That can’t wait.  This is your only turn to be 9 years old. And you deserve your turn like everyone else."

Are you treating a grieving child like Stevie who grieved the loss of someone to a mental illness?  Could explaining how the mental illness of the parent makes care giving difficult benefit your grieving client?

#4 - Alcohol or Drug Abuse
The fourth type of grief from separation that we will discuss is caused by alcohol or drug abuse.  When separation is due to alcohol or drug abuse by the parent or guardian, one way to approach the situation with a grieving child is by asking, "Do you ever wish you could just make your bad feelings and problems magically go away?" 

I have found that the answer is usually yes.  I then state, "So do I. Your dad thought that using drugs was the magic to make his bad feelings and problems go away, but drugs don’t work.  Drugs only make more problems and make the bad feelings worse." Many good children’s books are also available that can help children understand substance abuse. Think of a grieving child you are treating. Does he or she suffer grief from separation? Could the information on this track help your grieving client work through his or her grief?

On this track we discussed grief and explaining separation. Children who experience grief from separation may experience one of the following four types of separation. The four types of separation we discussed on this track are parental rejection, incarceration, mental illness, and alcohol and drug abuse.

On the next track we will discuss displacement reactions. Two topics regarding displacement reactions that we will discuss are why displacement reactions occur and identifying patterns and triggers of displacement reaction. We will also discuss the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique.

- Dowdney, L. (2000). Annotation: Childhood Bereavement Following Parental Death. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(7), 819-830. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00670

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Implications for School Counselors
- Petsch, P., & Rochlen, A. B. (2009). Children of Incarcerated Parents: Implications for School Counselors. University of Texas at Austin; Institute of Education Sciences, 1-27.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Jacobson, J. L., & Wille, D. E. (1984). Influence of attachment and separation experience on separation distress at 18 months. Developmental Psychology, 20(3), 477–484.

Panksepp, J. (2005). Why Does Separation Distress Hurt? Comment on MacDonald and Leary (2005). Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), 224–230. 

Sentse, M., Ormel, J., Veenstra, R., Verhulst, F. C., & Oldehinkel, A. J. (2011). Child temperament moderates the impact of parental separation on adolescent mental health: The trails study. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(1), 97–106.

What are four types of separation discussed on this track? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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