Let's deal with loss

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
National Children's Bureau says pupils can find changes, such as moving schools or the arrival of a new brother or sister, similar to bereavement

Starting primary school is not generally seen as a bereavement. Nor is the birth of a new brother or sister considered a tragic event.

But the National Children's Bureau has launched a campaign that highlights superficially good events which can leave primary pupils with a sense of loss.

For example, many young children resent the loss of parental attention that follows the birth of a sibling. And starting nursery or school can undermine a sense of familiarity and security.

Sacha Richardson, a psychotherapist who has helped the bureau with its campaign, said: "For children growing up, life is full of change. And change always involves some loss. It's helpful to have space to acknowledge it's not all wonderful."

He described an adult experience as a guide to how a child might feel:

"Imagine you're a married woman and your husband comes home with a younger woman. He expects you to make her feel welcome and to get on with her. Are you delighted?"

A sense of loss at home can manifest itself at school. Children may become unsettled and insecure. Confidence may dwindle and they may cling to their carers.

The bureau has produced materials, including a DVD, to help teachers address childhood anxieties around bereavement and loss.

Alison Penny, of the bureau, believes adults often shrink from tackling difficult subjects directly.

"Teachers need to find opportunities within the curriculum to deal with death and loss," she said. "If questions aren't acknowledged, children can think this is something they're not allowed to talk about."

Mr Richardson believes that teachers should be aware of the potential impact of change and help pupils to express negative emotions. "Reality is not all sweetness and light," he said. "You could say, 'That's good for some people, but others find it difficult'. That gives permission for both reactions."

And school can provide a sense of continuity that is lacking at home.

Teachers can offer children a level of choice in the classroom, which compensates for the loss of control elsewhere.

Mr Richardson said: "The more children learn that we all have different feelings and reactions, the more emotional understanding they'll have. If a child comes from a family where there's no place to express feelings around loss, school may be the only place they're able to think about it."

* www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk

HELPING CHILDREN TO COPE

ALLOW for individual differences in reaction and the expression of feelings.

DO NOT expect children to react in a certain way to certain events.

PROVIDE adequate information. For example, if a new sibling is due, acknowledge that there will be changes after the birth.

BE aware of the child's needs and address any fears or anxieties.

LISTEN carefully, noticing changes in behaviour. Continue routine activities, providing a sense of stability.

MODEL behaviour for children. For example, an adult could say: "Sometimes I find it a real pain when the baby keeps crying." This acknowledges that reality is not all good.

READ stories that deal with loss, such as a child losing a teddy bear.

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