helping children cope

Helping Children To Cope With Divorce and Death: The 5 Stages of Grief

Unfortunately, sometimes children are forced to deal with their grief when their parents get divorced, or one of them dies.  There have been many strategies put forth over the years. However, it is the landmark work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published nearly 50 years ago that has become the standard in the field giving grief counselors a critical structure for their indispensable work.

She has identified and explained the five main stages of grief, referred to as DABDA.

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

1. Denial

Denial is often characterized by such variant reactions such as avoidance, confusion, shock, and fear. It may seem counter-intuitive, but denial is the stage that very often is necessary to survive the immediate impact of the loss. By thinking that life no longer makes sense, or is too overwhelming, the psyche is shutting down and retreating into an unreal world that protects it from the frightening reality.

A child may harbor a false hope that none of this horror is true. Mommy or Daddy will soon walk through the door, and this terrible nightmare will abruptly end. Denial is crucial to help the child cope and survive the grief event. Denial shields the child from becoming completely overwhelmed with grief and thereby prevent its full impact to be felt all at once.

2. Anger

Once the denial and shock start to fade, the healing process begins. At this point, those terrible feelings that the child was suppressing rise to the surface. This next stage often involves frustration, irritation, and anxiety. Once reality begins to descend on the child, the questions arise, “why me?”, “is life fair?”, and on and on.

Because the child cannot comprehend that this could happen, she may direct blame and anger towards others in the family, or towards The Divine. Researchers and mental health professionals agree that although this anger is painful, it is essential for these feelings to be expressed. Anger is indeed a necessary stage of grief.

Experts in the field believe that although it may seem that the child is in an endless cycle of anger, it will dissipate. It has been found that the more truly the child feels the anger, the more quickly the anger will dissipate, and the faster the child will heal.

Whereas in everyday life, the child is instructed to control his anger, there is a different calculus regarding a grief event. Very often such profound loss is accompanied by the sense of being disconnected from reality, that the child is no longer grounded in this world. The child’s life is shattered, and there is nothing substantial upon which to hold. Strangely enough, anger is something to grasp onto- a necessary step in healing.

3. Bargaining

After the anger begins to subside, very often you will find the child attempting to make a deal with The Divine or some family member perceived to be powerful. Perhaps the child will say, “I will never be bad again if you just bring my daddy back!” This is called bargaining, and it is the way the child clings to a desperate yet false sense of hope.

The child feels that perhaps the pain and grief somehow could be negotiated away. So desperate is the child to rid himself of the pain that he is willing to commit himself to substantive changes in his life if that is what is what bringing back his home or loved one requires. The child is saying, “I am willing to do anything it takes to return life to normal.”

Based upon criticism over the years, Kübler-Ross acknowledged that these stages are not necessarily linear and some people may not experience any of them at all. Still, others may experience some of the stages and “skip others”entirely. Despite these qualifications, most who suffer grief do indeed travel through these five stages.

4. Depression

Once the child realizes that the negotiation isn’t going anywhere because no one can “make the deal,” she often feels overwhelmed, helpless and empty. These are the telltale signs of depression. Finally, the powerful realization that the person or the home that once was central to life itself is really gone, never to return.

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When this finally sinks in, the child may be seen to withdraw from life, walk around in a fog, feel completely numb, or even decline an invitation to get out of bed.  Being part of the world is overwhelming, there is no interest in being around others, and there is a reluctance even to talk. The “new reality” renders life utterly hopeless.

5. Acceptance

The final stage of grief is acceptance. However, acceptance doesn’t mean that it is okay that my parents are divorced, or one of them died. Instead, it is the felt sense that I am going to make it and be alright anyway. In this stage, as the child reenters reality, her emotions begin to stabilize. The child comes to terms with the fact that life will never be the same, but life can be lived nonetheless.

This is a time of adjustment and readjustment. Some days are good, some days are bad, and then the good days return. Don’t expect the child never to have another bad day – filled with uncontrollable sadness, but the good days will begin to outnumber the bad days.

The fog will leave and engagement with friends will begin anew. Perhaps most importantly, the child will start to understand that while the home will never be the same, nor can the loved one ever be replaced, there is the sense that it is possible to live a new reality.

Reaching his stage of acceptance completes the metamorphosis. This child is now a different person whose capacity to live and experience life is far beyond that child who suffered the traumatic loss that began the process.

rural schools teletherapy

Can Rural Districts Become Incubators for Education Innovation?

Much print has been devoted to the demise of education in Rural America. Sinking demographics, imploding budgets, and the continuous loss of rural appeal are enough to cause even the most optimistic among us to throw in the towel and give up on Rural America altogether.

But is all of this unsolicited pessimism justified?  Can we find no redeeming factor in the educational future of Rural America? Do they have nothing to offer the rest of the country?

The Answer is a Loud and Resounding “No!”

Perhaps we have overlooked the obvious. What is the obvious you might ask? It’s nothing other than the integration of technology and education, or “Edtech” as is it is affectionately known.

The truth is that if we wish to observe the future of technology in the schools, we shouldn’t be looking at either suburban or urban districts. Instead, our focus should be on rural communities.

When reviewing statewide initiatives in Rural America, it becomes quite clear that technology seems to be gaining traction. Those new programs include distance education and innovative learning opportunities for teachers in a variety of ways. And the data seems to indicate that successes are more common in rural areas.

It is the states with larger rural populations that should be dominating the focus of innovative edtech companies, investors looking to grow their portfolios, and the media. And the reason is quite simple. Rural areas as a result of their inherent challenges implementing conventional means are in a stronger position to embrace innovation.

A Digital Solution to a Tough Educational Dilemma

The idea that the greatest need is sometimes the formula for the best solution is nothing new. What has happened in Wyoming over the past decade is a case in point. One problem in the rural districts was how to meet the diverse needs of a varied population of students without stretching the budget too far.

To address this seemingly impossible hurdle, policies in the state were dramatically altered to eliminate all barriers for students to access educational opportunities.  Educators devoted significant time and effort in creating a new vision of education, essentially discarding the traditional paradigm of education in favor of something far more relevant and innovative- distance education and digital learning.

Capitalizing on cutting edge technology was at the core of this new paradigm. Online courses and interactive video were woven into the very fabric of this brave new world. And by embracing these changes to enhance education, the extension to online therapies as well including speech, occupational and mental health has been seamless.

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Teachers Benefit Too!

Interestingly enough, the transition to digital learning and distance education created new challenges. Teachers now needed a whole new toolbox of skills to blend online instruction with traditional learning techniques effectively. The solution came in the form of Google Summits, Edcamp, and monthly webinars.

Again the collaborative models created in the educational realm hold exciting promise for the therapeutic world as well. The seeds for online therapists to interact, share, learn, and strengthen each other, liberated from geographical constraints, have been planted and are already beginning to blossom.

Entrepreneurial Spirit is Alive and Well in Rural America

As of late, there has been an increased emphasis on expanding funding to nurture and support entrepreneurs in Rural America who show interest and aptitude in innovating Edtech products. What’s more, mini-grants are encouraging teachers to create new products that will enhance student success through technological advances.

It may be expected that this spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation will soon spill over into the clinical world as well. The digital world and its unlimited potential for innovation have already lit a fire under the feet of educators in Rural America. And as time goes on it can be expended that this fire will continue to grow.

And why you may ask is this gaining traction so much quicker among the rural population? The answer is quite simple. What many see as Rural America’s deficit is becoming the asset that may soon exceed our imagination!

second language teletherapy

Does a Second Language Help or Hinder Children Learning to Speak?

The Debate

The debate surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism for children has been pitting linguists and psychologists for nearly 100 years old. Back then, most experts believed that bilingual children were doomed to suffer cognitive impairments later in life. But the science has marched on.

The early myths surrounding bilingualism originated in studies in the US and the UK from the two world wars. Unfortunately, these studies had serious flaws. The subjects were children of war; refugees and orphans who suffered trauma and whose education was disrupted for years.

Not to anyone’s surprise, these children performed quite poorly on the language tests they were given. However, did any of the researchers stop to consider the impact of PTSD on these children? How could they? PTSD was relatively unknown at the time, so instead the poor results were attributed to the children’s bilingualism.

The Case Against Bilingualism for Children

The primary concern regarding bilingual children in the ensuing confusion as a result of learning two languages simultaneously. How could this young child avoid the practically guaranteed confusion that will result from mixing the languages? So instead of being adept at two languages, the child probably won’t be competent in even one!

The McGill Study that turned things around

In the1960s, a landmark study was published by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal, that was seminal in causing the views of bilingualism in children to shift.

The McGill study showed that contrary to the accepted belief that bilingual children will suffer a cognitive delay or a longer-term deficit, that their bilingualism can benefit the children in their cognitive development!

Benefits were demonstrated both regarding improved executive function as well as metalinguistic awareness, which is the capacity to conceive of language regarding abstract units and associations.

Improved Executive Function

Executive Function is the umbrella term that refers to those skills that allow a person to control, direct and manage their attention. It also includes the ability to filter out what is irrelevant, focus on what is relevant, and the ability to plan.

People who are bilingual are mastering two languages simultaneously. Such mastery is activated automatically on the level of the subconscious. In other words, the bilingual person is in a mode of constantly managing the interference of the languages. This is necessary so that the wrong word in the wrong language isn’t said at the wrong time.  

These filtering and organizational skills are among the most complex brain functions that exclusively human beings perform. The “processing center” is the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for advanced processing; the bilateral supramarginal gyri, which play a role in linking words and meanings; and the anterior cingulate.

Research has shown that being bilingual alters brain structure as a result of these necessary accommodations. In other words, the benefits of being bilingual aren’t temporary but rather long-term serving that child well into adulthood!

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Enhanced Brain Development

Neurons, the cells in the brain contain little branching connections called dendrites. Gray matter refers to how many cell bodies and dendrites there are. Brain scans have shown that bilingualism increases the density of the gray matter- in other words; it promotes the creation of brain cells.

Bilingualism increases white matter in the brain as well. This white matter is a fatty substance that covers axons optimizing the connections between neurons, allowing messages in the brain to travel quicker and more efficiently across the brain and neural networks.

Bottom Line

So it seems that contrary to what was initially believed about bilingualism in children may not be true at all. Exposing this myth may have far-reaching implications for the children of immigrant and bilingual families, their speech therapy needs, and the language strategies needed to be designed to enhance their development.

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Can Mindfulness Reverse the Dreadful Symptoms of PTSD?

Much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the treatment of PTSD is based upon the presumption that individuals who have PTSD have experienced irreversible neurological changes. However new research suggests otherwise. This important discovery could have far-reaching consequences for the treatment of PTSD.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional and physiological response to a terrible event. This event could be experiencing combat, rape, a natural disaster or an assault. Other potentially traumatic events, while not as well-known, are no less damaging including any threat to one’s life, body or even moral integrity.

The automatic reaction when we are faced with danger is to go into fight-or-flight mode, which by increasing the release of cortisol and adrenaline enables to one to act quicker, either to fight or to flee.

Trauma inhibits this typical response to danger. Instead of fighting or fleeing, we freeze. This freeze is accompanied by a profound sense of paralysis and helplessness which disables the victim to do anything that results in gaining relief from the situation.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that may evolve after the trauma is experienced. Although there a plethora of symptoms, the most common are:

  1. Experiencing the event again as if it is occurring at the moment

  2. Attempting to avoid any reminder of the event

  3. Feelings of emotional numbness such as the inability to cry

  4. Vulnerability to hyper-arousal from seemingly innocuous events

The Central Role of Neuroplasticity

The neurological implications of PTSD can be best appreciated once neuroplasticity, a new and exciting concept in neuroscience, is explained. Until recently the consensus among scientists was the development of the brain was akin to physical development- that once the brain became mature, it would no longer grow or develop in any way.

But recent brain research has shown quite the opposite to be true. The human brain is in a constant state of change. New experiences impact the circuitry in our brain. So, in the course of one’s life, brain mapping will show new and changing neural pathways. This flexibility in the brain is known as neuroplasticity.  

When trauma is experienced, neuroplasticity is responsible for the brain changes in order for the brain to cope and adapt to the particular situation. However, this adaptation, while serving the brain well at the moment as a defense against further trauma, has adverse long-term effects as will be explained.


The Neurology of PTSD

Neuro-imaging has demonstrated that the three areas of the brain that are impacted by trauma are:

  1. Amygdala

  2. Hippocampus

  3. The prefrontal cortex (PFC)

The amygdala seated in the brain’s limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) determines when danger is present, triggering the fight-or-flight response. The problem is that experiencing trauma causes the amygdala to remain hyper-vigilant to other stimuli that are not threatening, thus activating the fight-or-flight response system even when the person is safe.

Consequently, PTSD can cause the sufferer to get caught in a vicious cycle where it seems that danger is practically everywhere due to the activated amygdala.

This hyperactive amygdala is continually interacting with the hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays the critical role in memory function. Brain scans have shown that those with PTSD have a reduced hippocampus which suggests that trauma may be responsible for impaired memory.

Also, the hippocampus organizes memories and helps to give those memories context. PTSD by impairing the function of hippocampus serves to fragment memory resulting in a loss of context, compromised ability to distinguish past from present, and a reduction in integrating memories with factual knowledge and feelings.

The damage to hippocampus functioning seems to be responsible for the flashbacks and intrusive memories so familiar to those who suffer PTSD. But it gets worse. Those painful memories stimulate the amygdala assuring its continued hyper-activity.

The third region of the brain impacted by trauma is the prefrontal cortex or PFC. The PFC regulates emotions, impulses, behaviors, and response to fear.  Research has shown that those who have PTSD have reduced activity in the PFC. This means that there is impaired ability to arrest the flashes of memory coming from the hippocampus and the inability to signal the amygdala that the danger is imaginary.

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The Neurology of Mindfulness

Research has shown that there is significant data to support mindfulness as a way to relieve PTSD. However, it is only recently that this literature has addressed the neurological changes that occur in the brain during the mindfulness process.

As was explained above, deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are vital contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD, in addition to the overactivity of the fear center, the amygdala.

Mindfulness meditation by way of neuroplasticity changes brain structure and function.

It reverses the patterns of brain deregulation and memory fragmentation by increasing PFC and hippocampus activity in addition to calming down the amygdala.

Brain scans show that mindfulness meditation causes an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus as well as a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala. What’s more, neuroimaging studies have associated mindfulness meditation with increased activation of the PFC.

Neurology and brain research aside, clinical studies have demonstrated that mindfulness assists those with PTSD free themselves from the painful and vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.

The exciting discovery of neuroplasticity gives new hope to those suffering PTSD through the well-known power of mindfulness.