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Over the past thirty years, Dr. Irwin Sandler and Dr. Sharlene Wolchik, professors of psychology at Arizona State University, have conducted research on sources of resilience for children who have lost a mother or father. Parental loss is incredibly difficult and stressful, and some children experience long-term problems, such as depression or prolonged grief, after the death. But most children who lose a parent go on to lead healthy, successful lives. Psychologist Ann Masten refers to this resilience as “ordinary magic.”1
Sandler and Wolchik’s research uncovered resilient parenting strategies that can be used to promote children’s healthy development after such profound loss.2 Interventions that foster resilient parenting—like their Family Bereavement Program—can significantly improve outcomes for both bereaved children and a surviving parent.3 The program resulted in:
If you’re caring for a child who has lost a mother or father, you can practice resilient parenting by focusing on the five building blocks below.
You’ve just experienced what may be the most difficult event in your life. Grieving is a normal yet painful process, and there is no single best way to grieve. However, there are some strategies that can help.
Taking good care of yourself is important for both you and your children. Researchers find that bereaved parents who are less depressed are better able to provide the care their children need.4 One strategy for self-care is to set small goals that will add up to larger accomplishments. Give yourself credit for each step you complete. It may also be helpful to talk about your experiences and feelings with others who will really listen. Finally, avoid thought traps that will make you feel worse. For example, you may find yourself thinking, “I will always feel sad.” Research tells us that you can learn to recognize these thoughts and make them more realistic and hopeful by replacing “always” and “never” with “sometimes” and “lately.” Thinking “I will sometimes feel sad” is both more realistic and more manageable.5
Even after a parent passes, your family can still enjoy doing activities together. Quality time strengthens the positive bonds your children have with you and with the family as a whole—which promotes children’s healthy social and emotional development.6
One way to reinforce your family’s ties to each other is by setting aside Family Time in your home, where you and your children choose one or two hours each week to do an activity that everyone enjoys. You can also try weekly One-on-One Time—a ten- to fifteen-minute period where each child gets your undivided attention. The key to making these tools work is doing them consistently so that they become routines that children can count on.
One of the most powerful ways we can build resilience in children (and adults) going through difficult times is by listening to them with warmth, acceptance, and understanding. Active listening is about more than hearing words. It means listening and responding in a way that shows you understand what the other person is experiencing. Research tells us that active listening helps children become more aware of their feelings, validates that these feelings are okay, and helps them develop ways to deal with the difficulties they face.7 8 Active listening tells your children that they matter to you and that you understand their worries and concerns. Studies have shown that bereaved children whose communication with their surviving parent is warm, engaged, and responsive experience lower levels of distressing grief and depression over time.
One listening tool that’s effective for families is Big Ears. This simply means that when your children talk to you, you attend fully by looking at them and giving them all your attention. Another strategy, Tell Me More, involves giving children simple responses to show that you are following what they are talking about, such as nodding or saying “Uh-huh” or “Tell me more.” These responses encourage your children to share with you. It is also beneficial to help your children label their feelings and understand what might have caused them. For example, you might say, “You seem mad about not being allowed to go to the movies, is that right?” This helps children get in touch with the connections between their experiences and their feelings.
Another important piece of helping children become resilient is making sure they can still meet the normal developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence, even during grief. Healthy families have rules about chores, responsibilities, and limits. Some bereaved parents have difficulty with rules because they don’t want to be “hard” on their children. But decades of research have shown that children have fewer mental health problems when their parents have clear rules and provide positive consequences for following them as well as negative consequences for breaking them.9
One tool for establishing effective family rules involves deciding on consequences that are fair, effective, and consistently enforceable. You can create this structure while being sensitive to your children by clearly and calmly communicating the rules and following through on the consequences so that your children know what is and is not acceptable.
The death of a parent changes a child’s world, and these changes continue to reverberate over time. These can include dealing with reminders of their parent’s death or encountering situations, such as birthdays or holidays, where they simply miss their deceased mother or father. Research has found that parents can help children cope effectively and that children who cope more effectively are more resilient.10 11
All of these tools can help create a warm family environment, with open communication and clear rules, which helps reduce the negative effects of stress on bereaved children. You can also help your children cope by planning ahead for how your family will deal with difficult situations such as holidays and birthdays. For example, you can have a family meeting to decide together how to remember the deceased parent at a holiday gathering. You can also help children by modeling effective coping strategies. For example, you can acknowledge your own feelings while giving hopeful messages, such as “Yes, I’m feeling really sad right now, but I know that we are going to be okay.”
This guide provides specific ways to help a grieving friend based on insights from members of The Dinner Party, a community focused on life after loss.
The UK’s leading grief expert discusses why we fear grief and pain—and shares ideas for how we can talk about them more openly.