How do you discipline a grieving child?

The title of this post might seem odd. Perhaps it should read ‘How could you…?’ Why would you discipline a child who was grieving for a lost friend or relative (in our case sibling) and recovering from the trauma of that loss when all they need is love, understanding and security?

We feel we are as fair as possible with our discipline methods. We try to give our children freedom to be themselves within a stable home environment. We’re certainly no experts and of course as children grow and change so do the discipline methods, but over the years I’ve come to realise that discipline is different in every family so I no longer worry that we’re doing it ‘wrong’.

We try to lead by example as we’ve noticed that when we are ‘well behaved’ our children are too, but when we’re too tired to care (which happens perhaps just as often) their behaviour follows suit … to go ‘off routine’ is a risky move which almost always ends in disruption. We aim to teach them the basics such as good manners and the importance of taking responsibility for their actions, but they’ve all been so different in personality that we’ve had to adapt our approach to suit each child. For example, one gets upset at being shouted at and would rather things were explained, the other prefers a quick blast of order and is usually happy to move on.

We won’t tolerate rudeness, hitting or arguing. This has always meant a trip to the naughty step or room and has worked very well, but we also turn a blind eye to those pointless arguments or scuffles children like to draw you into. It’s about choosing your battles so that everyone is able to express themselves without a riot and live in relative harmony.

Naturally, in the immediate aftermath of Abi’s death we gave our children extra love, time and support. But they soon moved on and were back into their routine of school and clubs, while our own routine had been thrown out the window and we were still fumbling around to get through even hours let alone days.

For a long time after Abi died I found it very hard to consistently discipline them… to direct their days. I could barely plan a meal let alone an entire school week of homework and activities. I was normally hot on their use of video games, iPads and TV… now they could do what they liked as far as I was concerned. Who made up the bloody rules anyway?

They’d probably disagree with this as I was often referred to as ‘moody’… which I did try to explain was because I was sad and missing Abi, but to their eyes they were now living with a regular grump and nothing was fun anymore. I would shout randomly and get irritated by things more. If I did snap at them it was because I was tired and emotional, not as active parenting of their behaviour.

How could I make them go to bed on time or do their homework or get off the computer when I’d just seen how suddenly their little lives could end? What exactly was the point in trying to get them to keep their rooms tidy, try hard at school or tow the good little citizen line we all must live by?

As well as my own feelings of confusion, I was also trying to work out how to even approach them as they had been through trauma too. I had no idea how this would surface in them and was very cautious about upsetting them further. They didn’t need me on their case nagging about what seemed like insignificant stuff.

But yet that’s exactly what they needed…

Most parents I’m sure would agree that discipline is necessary for a peaceful home life. A child who doesn’t know right from wrong, what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t, what routine they should have to make their life work best, is a confused and usually disruptive child. Their behaviour often becomes worse without routine, structure and stability. They need guidance and often thrive with clear and fair discipline from both parents and teachers.

We’ve learnt this as they’ve grown and have tried to do our best by them. We had our routine and boundaries set, but Abi’s death put us all on shaky ground. We didn’t know how to be around them and they didn’t know what was expected of them.

I couldn’t face hearing them arguing or seeing them upset. They had bouts of rudeness and answering back but I let them get away with it. They wanted stuff so I bought it for them without question. I didn’t mind if they didn’t eat their dinner but got desert or if they stayed up too late on a school night. We needed them near us and as happy as possible.

But a few months in and I could see this wasn’t working. I felt stressed and on edge. They seemed unsettled. I knew that it was largely down to me. I had to find the will to bring routine and structure back into our home, but how could I when I felt like I didn’t even have that discipline for myself anymore? I simply didn’t care. But I needed to, for them. It was horribly depressing as I felt yet again torn between my grief and my need to live.

Now, I can tolerate immense frustration from things outside of my control but when my tired child has been put to bed without a story because they refused to do as I asked and decided to shout at me instead, I’m challenged beyond reason. When they’re crying out for me when I know I’ve already been to see them numerous times and that they just need sleep, my heart shatters.

Before, I would leave them to cry out their temper, then if they were calm (and still awake) we’d talk and discuss their behaviour briefly before a kiss and good night. But when it happens now I just want to run to them, be at their beck and call. It breaks me to hear the pleas of my child. Thankfully, my children don’t do this too often (perhaps though because we don’t give them the opportunity by always being there), but of course there will be times when they don’t get what they want or are just plain moody, and I need to identify when they really need me and when my intervention would do more harm than good. I know too well that if one of them screams for something and I say yes, it’ll teach them to shout to get what they want… which is not the sort of behaviour I want them to learn.

It took a long time, but when I realised that I needed to be consistent again and that they weren’t going to get distressed by it, I gradually began to return to my old discipline methods. I’m not talking tyrant here but common things like getting them to get ready for school, do homework or the odd chore. I still give them probably more slack than most, but goodness, of course I would!

I think I’ll always see each day, month or year of life they and we have as special and hope that we’re doing the right thing. Not beating myself up over the way they are is part of letting go and allowing us to get on with our lives. I can’t guarantee that I’ll always get it right, but at least I’m thinking about it.

7 thoughts on “How do you discipline a grieving child?

  1. I really do think your closing words say it all. There are many different ways to do things (as a parent or otherwise), but it’s by assessing those and changing when change is needed that I believe we do best by ourselves and our children.

    • Thank you. Yes, it’s also having the sense of mind to be aware of what is going on in front of you. Grief fogs that awareness and while we crave and need to change, grief also clings to the past. Our children force us to adapt, which is a blessing.

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  5. I know that this is an old post, but thank you so much for writing it. We lost our baby girl a month ago, and are just sort of starting to wake up and be able to discipline. Like you, though, I lose my temper instead of doing a good job and parenting effectively. They also get really upset with minor discipline, which I think is the high emotions triggering their grief, and they can’t deal with the deluge of feelings very well. I’m at a loss – they are preteens, we need to start putting boundaries back in place. I don’t need to be growled at for asking you to start on your homework! But at the same time, they are also in a vulnerable place just as I am. Reading your words made me feel less alone, hopeless, and out of place in the world. Thank you.

    • I’m so so sorry your baby girl died, and now you’re thrown into this grief minefield. I still struggle now five years on but I think I’m actually a better person and parent. I still get angry when I’m feeling low or anxious but I’m more relaxed about lots of things i didn’t used to be. It’s a balance between feeling like I’m bringing them up well and making sure they are happy. Go easy on you all these early early days xxx

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