Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Child Myths: Understanding Toddlers' Grieving

Toddlers are not too young to grieve when they experience separations.


Why did I call this blog "child myths"? It's because I'm concerned with some of the common mistaken beliefs that interfere with adult understanding of children's lives and needs. Today I want to comment on one of those myths, the idea that young children do not grieve over separations or deaths because they are "too young to know the difference."


I thought of this topic when I read Melissa Seligman's op-ed piece in the New York Times, "One Husband, Two Kids, Three Deployments" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/opinion/25seligman.html?_r=1&sq... ). Seligman describes the response of her two-year-old daughter to her father's deployment to Afghanistan. Using a Webcam. They were able to keep in touch-but the little girl "would beg for days to see her daddy on the computer and then, when he appeared on the screen, ignore him. David pleaded with his eyes, but she walked away, defiantly-as only a toddler can do. ‘She's just tired,' I'd say...).

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What should we make of the little girl's behavior? Was she "ignoring" her father? Was she "defiant"? Was she "just tired"? All of those are explanations that might be correct about an adult's behavior, but I doubt that they were true about a toddler dealing with an incomprehensible separation. To use the words "ignore" or "defiant" suggests that the child was capable of behaving differently but simply chose not to do what her parents wanted. It would be more accurate to think of her as emotionally torn between the sense of loss she had experienced for days and this brief contact over which she had no control. Her most comfortable option by far was to leave the painful scene.


In some ways, this was just like an adult's behavior; in other ways, it was quite different. Think about a time when you have been separated from and fearful about someone you love. You say to yourself, "Oh, if only I could just see her for a moment, I'd be so happy, it's all I ask for...". Then the person turns up, safe after all-- and how long a time passes before you pick a fight with her? Fear and anger are real parts of our sense of loss, and they are much worse if we feel we have no control over what is happening. This is the same for toddlers and for adults.

The big difference between toddlers and adults is in their abilities to think about separation, to have a concept of time, and to use empathy to imagine how the other person feels. For Melissa Seligman's little girl, the separation from her father had no reason she could think of or understand; he must just want to go away, or he wouldn't do it (after all, grown-ups get to do what they want). An absence of months is the same as "forever" for a child whose time sense is based on things like "when we wake up" or "after we have lunch". A two-year-old does not think clearly about other people's minds and what they might think or feel or know, so she has little ability to consider that her father misses her, is sad about the separation, but feels it is his responsibility to do what he is doing. No two-year-old can fathom the statement that "I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more"--indeed, most of us adults understand it about ourselves but not about other people.


Rather than "being too young to know the difference", this little girl was old enough to know the difference but too young to understand or manage it without a great deal of help. She was grieving for the loss of her father, and her grief is made especially difficult by the fact that he is not dead-- just not here. Fortunately, Melissa Seligman was able to think through this problem with adult cognitive and emotional skills and to help her children keep their connections with their father through letters. Having letters from their father provided the children with an increased sense of control over the separation because they could ask to have them read at times when they felt a strong need, such as bedtime.

Many young children have experienced separations from military parents in recent years. Not all of them, unfortunately, have had relationships with adults who could help them. There is also a very large group of children who get little help in dealing with a serious separation: these are the children of divorce.

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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