The start of the school year was always a time of celebration for my husband. Mimicking the practices of his mother, he insisted on a “first day of school” picture with our son out in front of our house. But in November of my son’s second grade year, my husband died suddenly in an automobile accident. There would be no more pictures out in front of the house with “Papa.”
We moved shortly afterwards, to be nearer to family, and my son started in a new school. He attended, but did not engage well that first year. Teachers told me he sat by himself at recess. Pictures of him that fall showed a withdrawn child. He was present physically in the classroom, but he fell behind, impacting him the rest of his school career. Grief does that to a child.
I have learned some things since those days that have shaped my parenting as well as my practice:
- Childhood grief is a trauma with clear behavioral consequences.
- Behaviors associated with trauma often mimic adhd. These behaviors can include restlessness, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, trouble learning, poor listening, difficulties managing emotions, and disorganization.
- The same parts of the brain impacted by adhd are also impacted by trauma, therefore…
- Children who already have adhd (as did my own son) are often more reactive to trauma, making the symptoms even worse.
Even through high school, I made sure my son’s teachers and counselors knew about the death of his father at a young age. Even as the years passed, I could never be sure how much that experience continued to impact his learning. Meanwhile, I worked with teachers and counselors to put in structures to support the damaged “executive functioning” part of the brain, so he had a few tools to help with organization and learning. It remains a work in progress years later, but we have seen improvement. I learned not to compare my child with other kids. His experiences have colored his ability to cope with stress and learn, and while I set standards, I don’t expect him to face school stressors in the same way a child might who has not been so impacted. And I have encouraged him to utilize his supports at school. Through high school, when he felt particularly challenged with life struggles, he utilized his school counselor and favorite teachers for guidance, when he did not feel comfortable bringing certain troubles home. I applaud that.
Since those days, I have seen many children with behaviors initially labeled as adhd. I have learned to look for histories of trauma since then when I interview families. If your child’s behavior has suddenly changed following the death of a loved one, consider the role of trauma and grief as you seek help. Midland offers grief support services for children and can be a resource to parents and children as they move through the trauma of death and loss.