Published On: Wed, Nov 29th, 2023

My husband died recently, and now my 6-year-old is acting out

My husband died recently, and now my 6-year-old is acting out
My husband died recently, and now my 6-year-old is acting out

Q: My husband died four months ago, and he was my 6-year-old daughter’s absolute best buddy. Since that time, she has been kind of hurting her 2-year-old sister, melting down and refusing to do anything except grunt or whine. She will not let me or anyone else (grandparents) talk to, hug or console her, and she keeps moving away from anyone that tries to talk to her at all. No one is punishing her, we talk about her dad often and positively, we collect feathers and coins and tell the sky “Thank you, daddy,” and are very aware that she’s grieving.

I’m a mental health practitioner, so I know what the books say to do, and she’s in therapy. She also lies about silly things like taking her vitamins and then has a meltdown if she gets (lovingly) caught in said lie. She also looks at me like she wishes it was me who passed, which is fine. I totally get it. He was her world and she was so attached to him. I just don’t know how to get her to stop hurting her little sister. Her sister can’t really talk yet, but I know my daughter’s lying tone/face — she’s not very good at concealing anything. When she melts down, I give her space and let her know that I’m here for her when she’s ready. If I catch her, I will hug her and tell her I’m here, but she’ll most often push me away and run away. She’s never been like this before, and I know why she’s doing it, but what else can I do to help her?

A: Oh my, I am so sorry for this terrible loss. Not only have you lost your partner, but you have to watch your 6-year-old suffer, which is also gut-wrenching. And here’s the funny thing about being a mental health practitioner and a parent: You know enough to understand what you are seeing, thanks to education and practical experience, but you are also in deep personal grief. What you’ve learned about emotions and children is easy to forget when the pain is so great, and it is human for overwhelm to take over. In terms of what you can do to help her, let’s unpack why children lie, melt down, hurt siblings and seem to regress when they are in deep grief.

When a child is 6 years old, they are often — but not always — in a developmental in-between place. Their brain has taken huge leaps in maturity: They are able to wait, take turns, communicate their needs (mostly), have and maintain compassion for others, and they understand the permanence of death.

But they are still little. They need to find refuge in the people they love after a long day, they still believe in magic and, while friends are increasingly important, it is their primary caretakers who soothe and help them grow. Children at this age will still have tantrums, growth spurts and regressions, and it is typical for 6-year-olds to be quite bright and still clutch their lovies.

Because your daughter is old enough to understand loss, she feels the deep frustration and alarm of your husband’s death. After someone we love dies, our brain forgets about the death and keeps “looking” for the person who has passed. Are they at home? Will they be in bed? Will I see them at breakfast? But unlike an adult who can readily talk to themselves about themselves (thank you, prefrontal cortex), your daughter cannot consistently harness and control this alarm, frustration and confusion.

She is old enough to not hurt strangers, but these big emotions come out sideways on her little sister, in meltdowns and in lies. I want you to imagine her as turned inside out, all raw endings and nerves. She is so raw that she is even grunting; the emotions cannot create words in her head. She can’t make sense of this stunning loss. We often forget in our culture that grief can be as much physical as it is mental, and that’s what’s happening with your child. Until her mind and body can begin to truly accept his passing, her behavior can skip around erratically. It is why adults binge TV, alcohol and work when we grieve; we do what we can to numb the erratic up and down nature of it all.

I asked Laura Berman, a well-known relationship therapist (and mom who recently lost her own son), for her wisdom. While she feels that therapy for your child is wonderful, she also recommends you look into somatic experience therapy, which is becoming an increasingly promising method to treat trauma, though there is still more research to be done. “Somatic experiencing is different from play or talk therapy, as it is not about thinking and talking,” Berman says. “Instead, the clinician helps the child learn how to express painful emotions in a productive and contained way that leaves her feeling lighter and supported. Somatic experiencing will also teach her … how to begin self-regulating when she is feeling overwhelmed with painful emotions.”

Berman believes this therapy can help your daughter process much of the grief-induced rage she is feeling.

When it comes to your younger daughter, Berman recommends keeping “them separated as much as possible unless a trusted adult is with them and engaging them both. Your daughter probably really leaned on her dad after her little sister was born and you were naturally distracted. Now she has to share again, and it’s a constant reminder of what she has lost.” This will get better with time, she says, as your 6-year-old learns other ways to express her anger.

You may be tempted to “discipline” or get your daughter to tell the truth, but allow strong boundaries to do the heavy-lifting here. That may mean calling on more friends and family so you can have more one-on-one time with each child. As you surely know, your 6-year-old doesn’t want to hurt her sister, so separating them for now is a kindness.

Above all, Berman stresses that grief like this takes time to unfold. “It’s only been four months, which may seem like a lifetime from your perspective, but this kind of loss takes time for everyone to metabolize, much less a child who doesn’t have the maturity, perspective or vocabulary to express herself.”

Meanwhile, as you protect your younger daughter and seek somatic work for your older daughter, be sure to support yourself. And as Erica Sonnabend, a grief recovery specialist, says: “Emotionally healing ourselves as adults gives us a greater capacity for guiding our children through their own grief journey.”

In other words, you will be better able to manage your daughter’s grief process if you also are healing and taking care of yourself. I know that may feel like a tall order right now, but your healing matters for everyone.

Many partners turn to grief groups to be with those who understand your particular loss. A therapist, a trustworthy person in your faith or a good friend can also bolster your strength as you process your feelings — and as you mother your girls. I also recommend Kate Bowler’s books and podcast, “Everything Happens,” for an unflinching account of loss and moving forward. Meghan Riordan Jarvis’s podcasts about grief, as well as her new book, “End Of The Hour,” could also be helpful on your grief journey.

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