Supporting Children through the Death of a Loved One

Dealing with your own grief is enough but how do you support your children through loss when their awareness level is different from you own?

As I prepare for the funeral of a family member — a full-time Dad who was highly involved in his children’s lives — it’s a startling reminder of the many children who have lost a parent/caregiver or any loved one. Recent estimates approximate that there are 10.5 million children around the world who have lost a primary or secondary caregiver within the last two years due to COVID-related deaths.1 Countless more have lost grandparents, neighbors or others. The grief of loss can be all-consuming to the surviving caregiver leaving that individual not only with a range of roles the other fulfilled but also, the pain associated with everyday living without that person. Yet, we know that the way children understand death and process grief is very different from adults. We can be supported by learning more about our children’s level of awareness so that we can help them cope with the loss.

As parents, we face the challenge of explaining the death in the news to our children. When a death occurs in our own personal circle, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions that may include sadness, grief, guilt, fear, shock, confusion, anger, denial, or disgust. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported.

Our instinct might be to protect our children. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. Reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it. If you happen to be in the middle of dealing with a painful loss, then this guide may provide helpful counsel to walk you through how you might consider supporting your children.

Though all ages – infants through adolescents — will feel a sense of loss, children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually.

Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which may be accompanied by anxiety, worry, and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents play peek-a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide-and-seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.

The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.2 The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note along with my own adaptations. It’s helpful to know and remember that a child of any age may show regressive behaviors typically expected in earlier ages and stages when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Children’s Understanding of Death at Various Ages/Stages

0-2 Years Old

At birth to two years of age, babies can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will exist because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling. Additionally, they may feel concern for their own security when they see or sense that you are regularly upset.

3-5 Years Old

Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and become curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person or animal to return. Often children’s pretend play involves battles, illness or death, a healthy way for a child to face his fears. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. Fears may arise that have not come up prior including separation anxiety from care providers or they may begin to experience nightmares.

6-9 Years Old 

At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in understanding death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively.

9-12 Years Old

Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine-year-old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death. They may seek to avoid experiences of or discussions of death or become generally anxious while a family is grieving a loss.

12-18 Years Old

Tweens and teenagers understand that everyone dies at some point. They may feel that their death and the death of others is impending. They may worry about being seen as weak if they show their feelings. They may have a sense of conflict between wanting to become independent and their need for dependence upon adults in their life. They may engage in higher risk or impulsive behaviors as a coping strategy. In addition to mood swings, they may change their peer group, isolate themselves more, and/or not perform as well in school. They may be more aggressive and could change their eating patterns.

Keep in mind that even as adults, it is the rare individual who has processed the reality of their mortality nor do any of us truly understand the nature of death. For children of any age, the unknowns of death are scary. Count on emotions to become more intense, more sporadic and behavior to potentially become unpredictable to go with it. Your efforts toward understanding your child’s feelings will go a long way toward easing children’s burdens. Be ready and open to listen when your child wants to talk. The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a relative, friend or a pet.

Things You Might Say:

  • Help her to know what you think and feel about the death to make it an acceptable topic to discuss. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.
  • Teach empathy for others who are sad. Help a child with concrete actions he can take to help. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.” Writing a letter, drawing a card or offering tissues are all small ways your child can take steps to help others in their grieving process and at the same time, help self-soothe.
  • Use feeling words as you reflect on what’s happening around you and how you are feeling. This helps normalize talk of emotions for a child (and for young children, it helps build their emotional vocabulary around loss). If this is a new experience, children will not know how to express their feelings so by articulatiing your own, you are helping them with their own self-understanding.
  • Listen and reflect back her feelings to her. “You sound sad about Aunt Violet. I understand. I feel that way too.
  • Offer your perspectives on how a person lives on. Do you believe the value and qualities of the person live on through the lives they touched? What kind of legacy of character did your loved one leave? Be sure and share that. It can be another specific way a child can take action by loving music as Aunt Violet did, or by acting kindly to others as your dear babysitter did.
  • Especially with younger children, reassure them that others are healthy and stable and they will be taken care of. For example, death is not contagious like a cold. Others will not die because their friend died. If you can and feel it’s appropriate, tell the story of the person’s death to alleviate questions, worries or worst-case scenarios that might be imagined.
  • Do share your beliefs about death if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). Do you believe that the person’s spirit, soul or consciousness lives on? You might say “I believe Aunt Violet is with God, Buddha, or Allah.
  • Talk about the circle of life whether its animals or plants and how the earth regenerates. Reassure that death is not a punishment but a part of the circle of life.
  • Reflect on gratitude. Death offers numerous opportunities to be grateful – grateful for the person we knew and loved and the memories we have, grateful for the values we learned from that person, grateful for our own good health, grateful for the gift of our family and friends and for the treasure of time to live the good life we have before us.

Things You Might Do:

  • Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort, and stability.
  • Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some part of the grieving process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing and help them follow through on those ideas. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
  • Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
  • Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, be sure and allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
  • Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
  • Invest in some one-on-one connecting time with your child each day during this time even if brief. You don’t need to discuss death or you can if you like. But invest some extra showering of love and attention with your child since she will need the reassurance. It can also help with our own adult grieving process if we focus on empathizing with and helping others through their sadness.
  • Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety. But be certain to offer expression opportunities without pushing them. A child will gravitate toward an expression form that feels right to them.
  • Recognize that emotions will run high and not just when you are dealing with funeral proceedings. Mourning is a process for children as well as adults and the emotions and reactions to emotions associated can strike during inconvenient times and in unexpected moments. When a child is upset, be sure you first, pause and breathe to calm yourself. Don’t attempt to react immediately. Then, reflect back the feelings you see your child attempting to express and allow her the chance to calm down and soothe.
  • Tell a teacher and school counselor. If a close friend or relative has died, be sure and let your child’s teacher know. There can be significant changes in how your child behaves at school. You’ll help the teacher better empathize, understand, and offer caring support. In addition, a school counselor can offer valuable additional emotional support for your child during the school day.

Particularly if the person who died was important in the life of your child, create a ritual that will help your child deal with the passing and help with saying goodbye. Maybe you could plant a tree in the backyard with his grandpa’s or pet’s name on a plaque or simple label beneath it. Maybe you place a valuable object of that person’s in a box and bury it in your backyard. Or give the child an object that was the person’s to hold onto in a special place to remember him. Also if your child is dealing with the death in self-destructive or aggressive ways, you may want to seek the support of a family or child counselor to help your child deal with the many difficult emotions.

Most importantly, when your family is coping with the death of a loved one, realize that your children’s understanding and experience of it will be different from your own. Seek support. Ask for help from other caring adults. Share the responsibility with others of helping your child through the loss so that while you are emotional, there’s a team of others at the ready to join you in supporting your children through their own grieving process.

The following are some children’s books that can help guide a conversation.

Picture books:

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Victoria Ryan (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

Grandpa Loved  by Josephine Nobisso (Author) , Maureen Hyde (Illustrator)

This is a recollection of the special times a young boy spent with his grandfather in the city, in the forest with the animals, at the beach, and with his family. Although the boy misses his beloved grandpa’s presence he feels assured that his passing has brought him to a better place and he knows that his grandpa’s love will always be with him.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death (First Look at Books) by Pat Thomas (Author) , Leslie Harker (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart by Maureen Wittbold (Author) , David Anderson (Author) , Larry Salk (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart is a book designed to help a child come to terms with the emotional issues raised by loss. In this case, it is through the loss of a beloved pet, Mishka, that Peter has to face the realities of death and dying. A sensitive neighbor comes to Peter’s aid and places the loss of Mishka into a larger understanding and compassionate framework.

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen. 1983. Bantam.

Using examples of humans, trees, and sea creatures, this book explains that all living things have a lifetime with a beginning, an ending, and living in between. This simply-worded book is a good resource for explaining the life cycle to young children.

There is a video on YouTube for Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is read and illustrated and may be another helpful tool for using with children.

The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon. Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. 1992. Albert Whitman and Company.

A child experiencing the loss of a loved one is the subject of these three gentle stories. While each presents a different scenario (death by illness, accident, or old age), all of the stories address children’s sad feelings and present different coping strategies.

Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile; A Story about Coping with the Loss of a Parent by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus

The PBS Kids site lists good chapter books for tweens and teens. Check it out.

Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations on children’s books on death.


References:

  1. Unwin, J. (2022). The Number of Children Orphaned by COVID Keeps Rising. Scientific American.
  2. Children’s Grief Association: www.childgrief.org.

3. Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

4. Lyles, M. M. (2004). Navigating Children’s Grief: How to Help Following a Death. Children’s Grief Association.

In Loving Memory of Mark Hayse.

“When It’s Not Quite Bullying…But It’s Still So Mean” Dear Highlights Podcast

Jennifer Miller joins the “Dear Highlights” podcast with Christine Cully and Hillary Bates to talk about social aggression, exclusion, and gossiping in elementary school. Being mean at times, and being on the receiving end of meanness, is common in childhood. In a world that isn’t always kind, how can we help children lean into the best versions of themselves? Listen to learn how adults can employ curiosity and compassion to guide kids through mean moments.

Listen here: “When It’s Not Quite Bullying…But It’s Still So Mean

How to Kickstart Your School Year with a Strong Parent-Teacher Partnership

By Jenny Woo, PhD

The start of any new school year brings about all kinds of emotions: excitement, anxiety, and fear. Even now, having gone through 20+ years of schooling and countless back-to-school moments with my three kids, I still feel the jitters when I recall my first day of elementary school.

The pandemic created even higher levels of unimaginable stress and nerves for students, parents, and teachers. We’ve confronted endless unknowns and adapted to the twists and turns that we might have said in the pre-pandemic world could only exist in a Hollywood production.

The past 2+ years of social distancing and school modifications resulted in lost opportunities for our children to develop social skills. This year, second graders will experience their first normal school year, and ninth graders will enter high school without ever experiencing a normal middle school year.

More than one-third of educators observed that their students’ social skills and emotional maturity levels were much less advanced than students before the pandemic. Researchers warned that these under-developed and regressed social and emotional skills could impact this generation of students for their lifetime.

How do we help our children develop these important skills they’ve lost or never had?

“It takes a village” may be a more important truth now than ever before. We require strong home-school partnerships to maximize our children’s learning and development. To make this happen, parents and teachers must work toward shared language, skills, and expectations for our students across all settings.

Here are some practical ways parents can take action.

How to Kick Off Parent-Teacher Communications

Getting that school email with all of the pertinent back-to-school information is exciting. We’ve now secured our back-to-school essentials and memorized the drop-off/pick-up routine.

A great way to start building a solid relationship with your child’s classroom teacher is to wait a few days to a week before emailing them. While some might argue that waiting isn’t the best idea, it’s also equally important for your child’s teacher to get to know your child on their own. The teacher may be getting inundated with emails at the start of the school year, and it could only add another email to their to-do list.

Email your child’s teacher introducing yourself. Or, if they have emailed the parents, take the time to reply. Give a little helpful background information about your child. Keep it short and straightforward. If your child has struggles or learning difficulties, give background on it. But, if it’s something that needs more than a few sentences to explain, it’s best to request a meeting.

How to Strengthen Ongoing Home-School Communications

Conflicts and misunderstandings will happen throughout the school year. Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, if there’s a problem, then it’s best to address it with each other right away. Common classroom issues like assignment completion or student behaviors can be better managed when there is an upfront understanding of expectations and procedures.

If your child is struggling with completing assignments, talk to your child’s teacher. Set up a meeting to discuss what’s happening at home and how it’s affecting your child. You and the teacher can work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

As parents, we are perpetually on alert—preparing for that call from the school about our child getting into trouble. It’s easy to fall into nit-picky mode—today’s math lesson was not up to par, or the teacher could’ve done this or that. We must remember to broaden our focus beyond deficits and problems.

A successful home-school partnership is strengthened with positive support. Share the good stuff! If your child mentions something special about their teacher, send a quick email sharing this sentiment. If your child shows improvement in something, thank your teacher. Notes of positive happenings go a long way and uplift everyone when they know they’re having an impact.

How to Build Shared Language, Skills, and Expectations for Home-School Partnership

The more teachers and parents work together, the more our students notice. A strong home-school partnership enables our students to practice and apply knowledge and skills across both contexts.

As a start, align your home language with your child’s teachers when you communicate your expectations regarding your child’s behaviors and assignments. Keep a pulse on what your child needs to thrive academically and socially at school. Establish a daily check-in routine with your child. It can be a chat in the car or a dinner table conversation about your child’s day.

For more support, 52 Essential Social Skills cards are an easy tool to spark school-life communications with your child and pinpoint their strengths and development needs. Each card includes a specific social skill and a relatable situation kids encounter at school—and often struggle with. The cards also provide “What would you do?” role play questions to prepare students for productive actions and responsible decision-making. 

Sample topics include making friends, dealing with a bully, working through frustrations, handling peer pressure, being a team player, handling exclusion, and balancing school stress. For more information, check out Social Skills for K-3 Grades, Social Situations for 3-6 Grades, and Social Dilemmas for Middle School.

References:

Blad, E., & Sawchuk, S. (February 24, 2022). Educators see gaps in kids’ emotional growth due to pandemic. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/educators-see-gaps-in-kids-emotional-growth-due-to-pandemic/2022/02 

Bauerlein, V. (May 9, 2022). Remote Kindergarten During Covid-19 ‘Could Impact This Generation of Kids for Their Lifetime’. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/remote-kindergarten-during-covid-19-could-impact-this-generation-of-kids-for-their-lifetime-11620552653 

Jenny Woo, Ph.D. is a Harvard-trained educator, TEDx speaker, and founder/CEO of Mind Brain Parenting. Jenny conducts research in social and emotional learning, emotion regulation, and resilience. She is the creator of a series of award-winning emotional intelligence games: 52 Essential Conversations, 52 Essential Relationships, 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills, and 52 Essential Coping Skills. Her games have won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Awards, 2021 National Parenting Product Awards, and were featured by Harvard and CASEL.

Happy Ten Years, Confident Parents, Confident Kids!

Dear Reader,

This site – the blog, organization and seeds for the book – were all born out of searching and not finding help for my own parenting that I could rely on. I wanted to discover practical strategies for my everyday life that were tied to the strong research base on how to support children and teenager’s social and emotional development at each age and stage. My son was four. And his self determination (as I see it now) and obstinance (as I saw it then), his rebellion, and moves toward independence had me stumped. How do I respond to him when he tells me “no” when there’s safety at stake? How do I handle it when he does the opposite of what I’m telling him (and I’m infuriated?)? How do I deal with this in ways that teach him to manage his emotions in healthy ways? And how do I manage my own emotions when I’m overwhelmed by them? In the wee small hours of the morning as I laid awake wondering where to find support, I decided I would learn for myself and share it with others. Surely others had the same questions that were keeping them up at night.

This single idea grew into a community of learners, experts, friends, partners and most of all, parents and caregivers (thank you, grandparent readers!) who put their role forward as one of the most valuable and meaningful in their lives. You have been on this parenting journey with us as we’ve grown and changed and asked new questions. We got our largest spike in viewers in those first months of the pandemic – parents in pain asking, what about our children’s social and emotional well-being? Thank you Pamela McVeagh-Lally for writing “My Kid’s School is Closed, Now What?” which attracted 50,000 readers and was reshared by the U.S. Department of Education! Below I share our top ten most popular articles below. Check them out and maybe there are ones you missed the first time around?!

I have such gratitude for my learning partners – Ethan, my son, Jason, my husband, my parents Linda and David and our contributing leadership team – Nikkya Hargrove, Dr. Jenny Woo, Mike Wilson, Dr. Lorea Martinez, Dr. Shannon Wanless and Jason Miller. Our recording of our dialogue and toast is our gift to you. Our hope is that you continue to read, share, ask good questions and contribute to our community of learners supporting one another in our journey to be confident parents who love confident kids.

Best,
Jennifer Miller

Founder

Top Ten Articles Over Ten Years!

  1. “My Kid’s School is Closed, Now What?!” by Pamela McVeagh-Lally
  2. 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention and Punishment” by Jennifer Miller
  3. “Family Emotional Safety Plan” by Jennifer Miller
  4. Kindergarten Exhaustion” by Jennifer Miller
  5. “Stop, Think, Go! Problem-solving Practice for your Family” by Jennifer Miller in collaboration with Roger Weissberg
  6. “Parent-Teacher Conversations” by Jennifer Miller
  7. “Games” by Jennifer Miller
  8. Family Guidelines for Fighting Fair” by Jennifer Miller
  9. “Parent Resources” by Jennifer Miller
  10. “A Storied Childhood; The Impact of Stories on Children’s Social and Emotional Development” by Jennifer Miller

Join Us in Celebrating Ten Years of Confident Parents, Confident Kids!

This Thursday, August 25th from 12:00-1:00 p.m. EST

Sign Up (free!) to join Founder Jennifer Miller along with all of the Confident Parents’ Leaders including Shannon Wanless, Mike Wilson, Lorea Martinez, Nikkya Hargrove, Jason Miller and Jenny Woo! We’ll discuss the evolution of parenting over the last decade and what is most important today in parenting for confidence and competence and offer a toast in celebration (bring your own drink of choice and toast with us!).

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Will you be attending?

Sleep, Teens and Back-to-School Season

And Additional Back-to-School Supports for the Whole Family!

The buzz of back-to-school time is in the air and certainly in our household. E, age fourteen, is starting high school and we are attempting to be thoughtful about how we assist him in this transition. Summer has a rhythm all its own. There’s a pleasant, relaxing swing and sway to summer even when there are many activities and all are busy. The school year, however, is all about focus and structure. And it can be quite a sea change for children and teens of every age and for the parents who love them too! 

Additionally, there is a growing recognition that paying attention to children and teen’s social and emotional development is not a nice-to-have at school or at home, it’s essential. And with the stress of a global pandemic and its ripple effects over the past few years, teachers’, parents’, and students’ well-being is at the forefront of our minds. Did you know, in a recent large survey of U.S. parents, 88% said they want their children to learn social and emotional skills?1

As we try and create a smooth transition, what do we need to consider? How can we help our kids, our teens and ourselves too in promoting our physical, social and emotional well-being as we launch into a new school year? That question alone is well worth reflecting on this season with our families. Among other issues, we know sleeping and waking routines can become one of the most challenging. Since kids and teens can exert control over sleep, it can become a power struggle that can turn pleasant evenings and busy mornings into stressful ones.

Adjusting to a New Sleeping/Waking Routine

One of the best ways we as parents can contribute to our student’s school success is ensuring they get enough sleep at night so they can focus on learning in school. Yet, sleep can be a contentious issue in families. After the freedom of summertime, who wants to go to bed early?  

With teens, sleep can be particularly challenging. Though we may think they are simply desiring to stay up late to play online games with friends, in fact, the brain and body changes they are undergoing support their night owl habits. Teens’ brains release the hormone that signals the body that it’s time to sleep — melatonin — a full two hours after adults and young children receive that signal.2 And that hormone surge for teens lasts well into the morning hours long after adults have stopped its production. So when teens awake earlier, they feel groggy incentivizing them to go back under the covers (or slog through the morning). Teen biology supports only the teen world (not the family’s routine!). 

We can respond to teens’ desire for independence by ensuring that they plan what evenings and mornings will look like and how they will take responsibility for their core needs. Here are some specifics on how to dialogue with your teen and family.

1. Discuss how much sleep is needed for your child/teen’s well-being.

First, be sure and talk about what science says is important for their nightly requirement. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children aged 6–12 years sleep 9–12 hours and for teenagers, aged 13–18 years, they should sleep 8–10 hours.3 And because that requirement varies per individual, take note on a weekend how long your teen will naturally sleep.

2. Talk about what helps create the best conditions for sleep. Which of these might your teen agree to?

  • Encourage fresh air, outside time and exercise after school. 
  • Turn off digital devices an hour before bedtime to wind things down. During that time, you might:
  •       Take showers or bath.
  •       Lay out clothing for the morning, pack lunches and backpack for the next day.
  •       Start dimming lights. 
  •       Charge devices outside of the bedroom. Include all family members (adults too) and teens will feel a greater sense of fairness than if it’s just their rule.
  •       Use calming apps designed for listening only or listen to calming music. We love Moshi or the Calm App.
  •       Read.
  • Plan for a consistent time to go to bed that ensures the required sleep.

3. Create systems to empower responsibility.

You may consider where your greatest challenges lie and then ask family members what creative solutions they can imagine might help? These might include:

  • an old school alarm. Yes, you can use an alarm that is not on your phone! And that plain alarm won’t temp a teen into checking social media before they greet the family for breakfast. Help along that all-important skill of self-management.
  • a checklist of the morning routine and responsibilities. Checklists work. Keep in a high traffic area so all family members can refer to it.
  • a checklist of all the stuff your teen needs to take with them to school. Keep this right by your exit door. This has saved us many a car turn-around from the realizations of what’s been forgotten.
  • co-created rules especially related to devices. When is it fair and healthy to use them? When do you need to put them away? These discussions help our teens develop responsible decision-making skills as they wrestle with what is fair not only for themselves but for their whole family.

These routines don’t need to be established immediately. Ease in. Sometimes discovering the pain of not having a routine can incentivize all family members to proactively plan for a cooperative evening or morning! 

If you have time before school begins, then it’s ideal to ease back into the sleep routine with a staggered earlier bedtime and earlier wake time each day. If your teen is already back in school, co-create a plan with specific times together that seems fair and reasonable to all so that you don’t wind up in a nightly power struggle. These simple steps at the start can help establish healthy habits that can see you through the entire school year. Here’s to many happy, healthy school days ahead!

Have younger siblings? Here are some additional back to school resources that may support the rest of your household!

Adjusting to Kindergarten; Exhilarating, Exhausting, Emotional

The Morning Routine

Establishing or Reinventing Home Routines and Responsibilities for Learning Success

Monkey Mind at Bedtime; Reflecting on Children’s Thinking

SAVE THE DATE!

Confident Parents, Confident Kids is celebrating its ten year anniversary next Thursday, August 25th. Look for the sign up to join the full Confident Parents Team (all 6!) from 12:00-1:00 p.m. ET, 9-10 PT for a panel discussion and toast. More to come soon!

References:

  1. Edge Research. (2022). Parent Mindset Related to COVID-19, the Return to School, and Mental Health; Findings from a Tracking Survey of Public School Parents of K-12 Students. Alexandria, VA: National Parent Teacher Association.

2. Jensen, Frances E. 2015. The Teenage Brain; A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide for Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. London, England: Harper Thorsons.

3. CDC Healthy Schools. Sleep in Middle and High School Students. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

What Parents Are Saying About the Importance of Social and Emotional Learning in Schools…

Real Stories, Real Families

Why do parents and caregivers support social and emotional learning (SEL) for their children? Can parents see a significant difference in a school without social and emotional learning versus a school with social and emotional learning? Families across the country answer those questions, two of whom are Confident Parents Lead Contributors, Jason Miller and Mike Wilson. 

Confident Parents Lead Contributor Jason Miller

Confident Parents Lead Contributor Mike Wilson

Check out the rest of the parent video series and learn more!

Interested in talking to your child’s teacher or school about what social and emotional learning efforts they have in place? Check out this Parent/Caregiver Conversation Tool from Aspen Institute that Confident Parents’ founder Jennifer Miller helped create.

Want to learn more? Check out the Leading with SEL site.

Waking Up to Family Life

The Great Reshuffle to Align with Our Life Priorities

By Jason P. Miller

Amidst these wildly changing times, an unprecedented shift is occurring in the timeless dance of workplace and family life. Forced to limit in-person interactions to curtail the spread of COVID-19, most employers in some way loosened requirements to report to work in a physical setting.  Employers counted on these measures to keep their employees and organization safe, while also finding ways to keep the work of the organization moving forward. The remote working arrangement that many employers offered did, in many ways, achieve these objectives.  What employers did not count on, however, was the wake-up call that this arrangement has initiated. 

Now, a historical moment has emerged that is radically shaking up the old order of work/life balance.  It is being coined by economists, scholars, and media outlets by a number of titles: “the Great Resignation”; the “Great Reshuffle”; and the “Great Reset” are perhaps the most familiar.  All point to the same phenomenon in which workers, after several years of being forced to rebalance their lives while working from home, are choosing to leave their positions and/or take pay cuts in lieu of going back to a daily in-person work schedule.  It is creating a watershed moment for the employer-employee relationship, in which the old contract of what constitutes a meaningful exchange is being fully re-written.

Consider the current situation for Rachel*, a divorced mother of two young children, whose employer has recently announced that all employees were required to come in at least four days a week, after two years of giving the full ability to work from home. “The last two years have been incredible for us as a family,” Rachel said.  “We are truly in each others’ lives every single day.  When one of the kids has a need, I am able to quickly go to them because I am right there, and my employer has come to expect these interruptions (which are minimal, because we have set rules at home).  For example, just the other day, one of my kids had something challenging happen at school, and really needed to talk about it shortly after coming home.  I was able to have this impromptu conversation in the moment in which it was needed, which helped her to clear her mind so she could have some enjoyable free time before starting homework.  That emotional support I could give her was because of my ability to work from home.  And, my partner is also here most of the time. So when I am occupied with a work requirement and I cannot respond, he is able to often pick it up, and we can trade off as needed.”

In addition, Rachel continued, the arrangement has enabled unexpected opportunities to emerge that have deepened their family bonds as a supportive unit.  “I have a chronic health condition that can create challenges for me with my energy levels, and it can affect how I am able to engage in my day.  Being in each others’ lives the way that we have, my kids have also learned how to take care of me too. This has been so valuable for all of us, and it is helping me to raise very caring and loving kids who tune into the needs of others.  I am also able to take care of myself more appropriately by responding to my body’s needs when they emerge.  How could I possibly give this up by going back to the office four and eventually five days a week?  My profession is important to me, and this place is all I’ve known for 13 years.  But now I see that there is a different life that is possible, and I can’t go back. I don’t know where I’ll go, but I can’t work there anymore.”

Rachel’s story shows us that the title of “the Great Reshuffle” is perhaps the most accurate for what is really occurring.  So many have been forced inside – both literally and figuratively.  Forced physically inside, they have found themselves also being forced to look inside themselves and their life.  For so many like Rachel, there has also been a wake up to family life.  

Of course, not everyone has created the levels of intimate support that Rachel’s family has managed to co-create.  For many others, the forcing inside has led to breakdowns and breakups.  It is well-known that the realities of neglect and abuse have skyrocketed these past two years (divorce, addiction, abuse, depression, and overdoses have all risen during the pandemic). These trends are indeed troubling, but they were not born during the past two years.  Rather, they all point to a much longer-term trend that is fueled by a cultural context that emphasizes our separateness rather than our unity. We see this emphasis in all parts of our culture, with consumer products and mass and social media outlets turning the importance of individual tastes, preferences, and opinions into an algorithmic science.  

Yet, despite these disturbing trends, the possibility of a “Great Reshuffle” illuminates a path to a new future of a different kind.  Rachel’s example, along with a rising mass of others, suggests that there is perhaps no better time than this very moment to rethink, reimagine, and reshuffle the ordering of our conscious energies and priorities in our life. Going a step further, this is the moment in which we can collectively shift our focus toward arguably the greatest influence on all of humanity: the family unit.

When we hear the word “family,” a wide and complex array of memories, emotions, stories, and images can flow through us.  Family experiences and relationships are deeply formative, and therein lies the power and potential of the family system.  But, so much of the strength of the family system has been tried, tested, and eroded in a culture that places supreme value on extrinsic rewards (e.g., money, consumption, pleasurable escapist experiences, fame, etc.).  While it is easy for each of us to point the finger and find someone to blame, the truth is that each of us is both at the effect of AND a contributor to the currents of our cultural context.  The Great Reshuffle gives each of us the opportunity to make significant adjustments to how we live our lives.

We have, in our given moment, the possibility to dramatically shift the center of our lives from work and economics to family and well-being.  When we pause to really see, as the pandemic period has offered so many, we spend a large amount of conscious energy on work, and all that work affords us.  In this work-earn-consume paradigm, family life can often feel like something to manage or “balance” as a trade-off (which feels like a cost).  What would life be like if we chose to invest the same amount of psychic energy into family that we do in work and consuming?  What if all the hours we spend sweating work deadlines, tasks, and promotions were instead directed toward the well-being, growth, and flourishing of our family members?

This is the culture change that each one of us can facilitate, and it starts right at home.  In the landmark 1990 book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi leveraged decades of research from multiple fields to give us the concept of flow.  Flow experiences are situations in which conscious attention is unusually well-ordered, with thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all senses focused on the same goal.  The result is an experience in harmony.  Chances are that we have all experienced flow at one time or another.  It is marked by a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of novelty, and an altered sense of time.  It is being completely tuned in, usually with an inner calm and confidence even in the face of intense challenge.  The “family in flow” is a useful and powerful aim that could serve as a vehicle to transform the family unit, the members in it, and the various communities the family touches.

How might family members co-create the conditions for flow to occur as the norm of family life?  Below are a few first steps that a family can take to create a home life that is best depicted as experiencing “spontaneous unity.”  “Spontaneous” in that each day will present unexpected and unplanned moments to create flow experiences for each individual; and “unity” in that the family experiences a sense of deep interconnection with one another around a strong sense of shared purpose.  

  1. Proclaim Individual & Shared Purpose & Values.  

Start with reflecting on and sharing why you, your family members, and your family as a whole exist, and what you stand for.  By engaging with all family members in a process of individual and collective introspection, you will be going a long way toward setting the solid foundation for your shared focus, choices, and actions.  Each individual, and then the group as a whole, can reflect on questions such as these:

  • Why are you here?
  • What are you uniquely meant to change in the world?  As a person?  As a family?
  • At the end of the day, what do you and your family believe is most important over all else?
  • What do you and your family want to be remembered for?
  • What do you and your family hold as most sacred?
  1. Activate Purpose and Values through Concrete Opportunities.  

To fully create a flow experience, it is not enough to stop at your ideal purpose and values.  You have to put them into action through the identification of real paths of contribution for each family member.  For example, if your collective family purpose is to advance learning and education in the world, how can every member of your family actively participate in this purpose, regardless of their age and/or life stage?  Part of this might include everyone engaging in ongoing formal learning, such as classes, workshops, webinars, podcasts, books, etc. (both individually and collectively).  For certain family members, they might take on a mentoring or tutoring role in the community. For others, it might take the form of advocacy work to create access opportunities to education. The key is to arrive at a common purpose and to help each member activate their individual purpose and unique gifts through what is shared as a family.

  1. Engage in a Daily Family Flow Practice.  

External forces are quite powerful, and there is no shortage of distractions that regularly work at pulling the family unit apart.  Failure to turn inward toward the relationships of the family every single day can diffuse attention, distort divergent goals, and amplify conflicts.  A shared daily practice by all members of the family can help to build a spontaneous unity throughout each day, even when all members are not together.  One such practice might look something like this simple, three-step approach:

Step 1: Attune.  Simply pay focused attention on each other, and on your own personal experience as well.  Get curious.  Listen deeply to what is arising within you (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and between you.  Release judgment, which shuts off your ability to tune in.

Step 2: Discern.  Now that you have noticed what is arising in your interaction, be deliberate in interpreting and making meaning.  Is what is arising in you coming from a place of purpose in unity with flow?  If you are feeling a sense of joy, love, and/or peace, without attachment to any outcomes, those are good indications that you are.  Or, is it coming from a place of personal ego needs that may work to separate us?   If you are feeling tension in your body, getting defensive, or experiencing anger, fear, or anxiety, chances are you are not in flow.  Go back to step 1, getting curious about what is triggering this response.

Step 3: Choose on Purpose.  Each moment presents an opportunity of choice.  Once you have discerned that you are in flow, make the choice that enables you to act on your purpose.  This may or may not be the easy path.  But you know you have chosen the path of purpose by the levels of peace and sense of knowing that you experience, even sometimes in the face of adversity.

Underpinning all of this, at the basis of any family in flow, is the fundamental principle of unconditional loving acceptance of all – including of yourself.  Success is predicated on each member self-emptying by releasing judgment, cynicism, fear, and the need to “fix”.  Simply being with each other, without the need to change anything, paradoxically is the very force that can change everything.

As we continue to face unprecedented shifts amidst the Great Reshuffle, let’s seize this opportunity to make this the new age of the family.  Family can be where the melodies of compassionate love are sung.  And, taking these melodies outside the home, they work to harmonize with our communities, and life in the world.

Jason Miller has over twenty-five years of experience as an Organizational Development leader, coach, and consultant. Jason currently has his own coaching and consulting practice called Inner Sound, and serves on the leadership and faculty team of the Hudson Institute of Coaching. He cultivates a more purpose-led approach by helping clients to shift focus from outward achievement and external validation to inner wisdom, joy, creativity, and contribution. Jason has coached and developed leaders and teams across multiple industries and Fortune 500 clients–including Google, Amazon, Panera, OhioHealth, Accenture, Caterpillar, The Gap, and Fidelity Investments. In Columbus, Ohio, Jason is husband to Confident Parents Founder Jennifer Miller and father to a teenage son. Learn more at Inner Sound Coaching & Consulting, LLC.

Reference:

*Name changed.

Exercising our Social Justice Muscles at Home

How Can Parents Show Unconditional Love Transforming their Values into Action while Maintaining Emotional Boundaries?

How Can Parents Show Unconditional Love Transforming their Values into Action while Maintaining Emotional Boundaries?

By Shannon Wanless

In the past few years there has been more visible interest in disrupting racism and building a more just and equitable world. Anti-racist book lists circulate widely. Businesses and schools hire diversity and equity consultants and hold mandatory staff training. Parenting groups have guest speakers about how to talk to our children about racism. Although these actions could be productive, they remind me of tasks to check off a list rather than catalysts of the deep transformative change that is needed. Individual people accomplishing individual tasks is not enough to disrupt racism. 

Instead, we, as a collective, also need a fundamental shift in our values. We need to be firmly grounded in values of unconditional love for every person, equitable redistribution of power, and accountability to the responsibilities that come with being part of an interconnected community. When we make a deep and intentional commitment to specific values, then it becomes clearer how to make sure that all of our words, relationships, decisions, and actions will reflect them. Living a values-inspired life, together, is how we will make a more just & equitable world. 

So what will it take for the world to undergo a transformative values change? The answer is to start within ourselves. And like just about everything else, our core values start at home. Let’s take a closer look at the values we need to examine. 

  1. Being clear about what our values are.

Have we ever really named the values that are at the core of our being? Because we are living through complex times, we will be put to the test. So in order to be ready to stand for what we truly believe in, we need to name them. Only then can we develop ways to intentionally teach them and make sure they come up in our family rituals and routines. 

Most of us would probably nod if we were asked if we value love, honesty, and responsibility. But have we really thought about what those words mean to us and how they play out through our words and actions? And what other value words would we choose?

As my mentor, Michelle King, asked me recently, “What is your working definition of love?” To be honest, I was a bit stumped with this question. I couldn’t believe how simplistic my response was. Love is so complex! If I had really committed to this value, shouldn’t I have a clearer definition of it? As I thought about my working definition of love, I realized that for me love was unconditional — I was adamant about that. But there have been many moments in my life where I was not living this way. What does unconditional love look like, every day, for every person, no matter what? 

I started to look at my daily routine at home. What about when I’m getting ready for work and my kids are getting ready for school or summer camp? And then I thought about recurring moments such as birthdays, report cards, and graduations. How do I show unconditional love in each of those circumstances? Do they know that I love them even when they are making me late for work, or when they bring home low grades on their report card? I want to have high expectations but also show them that I love them no matter whether they achieve them or not. This seems like a fine line but absolutely critical to living my definition of love.

And what about how I model love for others? Do my children see that I can be frustrated with others and still love them unconditionally? What does it look like to have boundaries and yet feel authentic love in your heart for someone? 

  1. Engaging in regular reflection about how we are living those values — or not.

Everything we think, say, and do reflects a value. If we are thinking about it, then we may be reinforcing social values that we don’t actually agree with. For example, when an extended family member says something that we think is problematic or misinformed, we might tell them that if they say that again in front of us, we will not spend time with them anymore. What is our intention of saying that? Are we trying to punish them for saying what they think is true? Are we just trying to make ourselves feel better by getting away from their annoying comments? How could we rephrase this to reflect our unconditional love? What if we explained that we don’t believe what they are saying and are not going to change our minds, but want to stay in relationship and communicate with them? “Is it possible to spend time together and be our true selves if we do not agree?”

In fact, when I ask people about their values and their most common parenting practices, it is amazing how often they don’t align at all. But when we take the time to decide what values we want to commit to, then we can be intentional about checking regularly for authentic alignment.

  1. Holding each other accountable when we stray from our values.

It is particularly hard to be true to our values when we are under stress, or when we are in conflict with the values that the rest of our community holds. What is our plan as a family to be on the lookout for these moments, call each other in, welcome feedback, and help each other reconnect to what we believe is important? Maybe we should have a family ritual that makes this easier. For example, you could have one special cup that you fill with a snack and then invite the other person to sit down and share it with you while you talk through something that might not be easy to say. You might start with, “Is there a good time for us to talk about something that has been on my mind?” When the other person sees that cup, they know to give you their full attention and be open to receiving feedback. Even if you both hold differing values, you will at least know that you are speaking from a point of view that you each hold dear. This conversation can be tender yet also clear about where each of your emotional boundaries lie. Keeping yourselves accountable to respecting each others’ boundaries is a part of family love.

Tensions over homework and grades are common and can sometimes feel neverending. Even if we try to show unconditional love in the moment, stress can be high for parent and child, and the message may need more reinforcing later.  I can picture sitting down on a weekend with the special family cup full of fresh strawberries and asking your child if it is a good time to talk. Share your unconditional love and your struggle as a parent to hold high expectations but also acknowledge the reality that sometimes homework can be too much. “I love you no matter what the exam grade ends up being, and I also am going to work with you to do as well as you possibly can.” Ask your child to share their experience too. Even if you do not agree, and even if they do not value homework at all, your honest conversation about each of your values will help you both see that you are bringing your best selves to this relationship.

Before we can create a more just and equitable world, we have to begin to articulate what that world would look like, and begin to experience it in small moments so that we know what it would feel like. Beginning to envision and enact a just and equitable world can begin at home. It will likely be clumsy, and require many moments of reflection, difficult conversations, changing-course, and being vulnerable. We need to get more comfortable and skilled with all of that inevitable messiness. Home is the perfect place to practice exercising our social justice muscles. This is what deep, sustainable transformation looks like.

Shannon Wanless is an Associate Professor as well as the Director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, a large university-community partnership center in the School of Education, that is focused on ensuring that all children thrive. Shannon focuses on young child’s development and the adults that help them thrive. Her current work is on social justice and equity. She explores ways that children, preservice teachers, and organizational leaders develop social justice and equity skills and how to create classroom, school, and organizational climates that reflect social justice and equity tenets. Shannon also co-investigated research with Jennifer Miller and Roger Weissberg on Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning. Shannon is the mother of a teenage son and daughter. Visit https://www.ocd.pitt.edu/ to learn more.

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