Parents gain a great deal from a course about loss

A six-week programme helps parents of young children to handle difficult discussions, finds Henry Hepburn

A Lanarkshire primary school has given parents a lifeline to help them talk to their children about loss, bereavement and divorce.

The six-week parenting programme was run for the first time last March by Netherburn Primary, for the parents of pre-school and P1-2 children.

Netherburn, which has just 70 students, sits in the middle of a small and relatively deprived South Lanarkshire community, a few miles from Larkhall.

But headteacher Lesley Winters-McCann had noticed that many young children had endured loss such as marital separation, bereavement, or the long absence of a parent (many are in the armed forces) before they even started P1.

Her answer was to respond with the parenting programme, in which parents spent two and a half hours a week sharing their feelings about loss and change with teachers, and discussing how they could help their offspring deal with them.

The course, funded by South Lanarkshire Council's inclusion team, is part of the school's wider attempts to involve parents and, in Mrs Winters-McCann's words, "build community".

Mrs Winters-McCann says teachers' experience had been that parents sought to shelter their children rather than openly discuss painful subjects, fearing that the children would be stigmatised or would fail to cope. A child might be told a deceased family member had "gone on holiday" rather than died, for example.

But this can be counterproductive, according to early years practitioner Anne McCluskey, who says children might "fill in the gaps" of the story themselves. "They will begin to think it's their fault that Dad has gone, and get upset when Mum drops them off, thinking, 'Now she's going because of me, too,'" she explains.

The parenting programme "got quite emotional", she says. "It tapped into parents who weren't really aware of their own emotions. The parents start to feel there are other people like themselves."

One parent responded after the course: "I feel cleansed". And this was a fairly typical reaction. But teachers also saw it as the chance to help parents to build up their child's emotional resilience and to convince them that even very young children can be helped to deal with difficult truths.

"Peer support has been really valuable, listening to others who are like-minded and who are not judging you," said one parent in the feedback session. "It's all right, it's not a taboo - it's OK to talk about loss and change." Another said: "I now feel a lot more at ease talking with my child and others about any sort of situation."

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