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Monday, February 24, 2014

How Do Children React to Death?

Continuing my series today with how different age groups might realistically react to death. You can read up here for last week's post on what children intellectually understand about death. But I get a lot of questions about the feasibility of reactions of young children, so I'm trying to clear that up here.


Children this age most often cry when in any kind of distress. That's how they let you know, without words, that they are cold, hot, wet, gassy, hungry, etc. In a child who experiences a grief reaction (and yes, in the field we'd call it's traumatic to lose anyone at any age), you'd see crying and general crankiness, but you'd also see a fussiness to get more attention. This could turn into temper tantrums or extreme bouts of crying (lasting anywhere from an hour to three) where they are inconsolable. Small infants and toddlers will also show variance in their eating and sleeping patterns, perhaps being more picky, have trouble latching on, or frequent night wakings. Toward the end of this age range, children will show regression in behaviors and skills they have already learned, like toilet training, walking, and language.


Preschool-aged children will also show regressive behavior, just like the above age range. They could be completely potty trained, but regress back to using pull-ups when faced with a traumatic grief situation. These children could show anxiety, specifically when having to be separated from a parent or caregiver. They might be clingy, grabbing on to the legs of their safe person, when faced with being separated. Crying is also common. Children this age might be aggressive, when they weren't so much before. This is an adjustment reaction to the trauma, and with appropriate intervention, as we'll discuss next week, should eventually dissipate. This age range obviously has more language skills, and as such will openly talk about death and try to make sense of it.


School-aged children could develop school phobias, withdrawal from friends, or learning problems they didn't have before. They might also exhibit aggressive behaviors, especially boys, who tend to show an increase in destructive behaviors. Children this age might be more prone to stuffing their emotions so that they appear to be okay to peers. They might be more clingy to caregivers, though. The emotions they do have might be excessive guilt or denial, both of which are common. Children are ego-centric beings, thinking the world revolves around them, so they take undue weight upon their shoulders. It's also at this age that psychological symptoms might manifest more as physical symptoms, such as hurting tummies, headaches, etc.


It's very common for emotional reactions to be kept silent at this age. If the youth as an outlet (counselor, church group, sports) they might find their emotional needs met. If they don't, then unresolved grief can lead to "acting out" behavior, such as drugs, criminal activity, and risk-taking (pushing their body to its physical limit). Two common polar opposite reactions I've heard from teens: "I just want to feel something" or "I just want to numb out." For those teens who are more likely to be emotional, there can be overt depression, withdrawal, guilt, anger, and denial. They might lack motivation to do anything, grades could drop at school, or things they once found pleasurable don't appeal to them anymore.

Hopefully this has helped flesh out some common reactions. There are other behaviors that might exist that haven't been explicitly listed, and each child's grief is unique. Environmental factors like previous exposure to trauma, responsiveness of caregivers, and internal resiliency of the child can make reactions more or less intense and/or severe. Be sure to write-in with any specific questions, using Friday's Dear Jeannie column.

Let's Analyze

Are any of the above behaviors baffling? What else would you like to see added?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Love Triangle Fall-Out

Dear Jeannie,

Nat and Jon grew up in each others' pockets. Members of the same clan, they fed on and encouraged each other since boyhood. Best of friends, really, despite different social standings, family ties, and ambitions. They never had a problem until they fell in love with the same girl. Would they still keep that close friendship after Nat won the girl? Jon's ambitions keep him out of town, but I'm not sure how two men would hold on to their relationship after one of them lost in love. Also, in a tight-knit community, how might this triangle bleed over into other relationships with family and friends? And then, lastly, about the plotting--how is Jon (loser in the first round of love) going to respond when one of their clan asks him to consider an arranged marriage to a younger girl from a wealthier family? I love these guys, but I don't always get in their heads well...

Recovering in Reno

Dear Recovering,

Interesting that I'm reading a YA book right now that has this dynamic, and the two boys do remain friends. However, I think it works in this book because of the other factors, like the "Jon" in the book being able to move on (relatively quickly, I might add), and the acceptance he had that for the girl, her eyes had always been on the "Nat." Depending on whether the girl was at all in conflict between the two (of any serious the book I'm reading, she knew she was dating the "Jon" because the "Nat" was unavailable at the time), that could impact their ability to move forward. Since you have Jon physically distancing himself from Nat and the girl (due to his ambitions), then maybe out of sight, out of mind for him and he might move on quicker. As to how the community or friends would respond, it's always awkward around the "loser" in love. No one knows quite what to say or how to act, perhaps so much so that they avoid Job or Jon himself might want to withdraw (b/c I'm sure it hurts him to see them together). As to how Jo will respond to an arranged marriage, that'd depend on a few things, namely passage of time (to allow for his heart to heal) and whether he was truly able to let his feelings for the first girl go. If she and Nat are doing well and he's gotten to the point where he's actually happy for them, then yes, I'd say he could be open to the arrangement, unless he was holding out for love.

Thanks for writing in. Good luck!

Got Questions?

Maybe I got answers! The QUEUE IS now's the time to leave your anonymous question below. Use a moniker like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my answers in next week's column.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What Do Children Understand about Death?

I get a lot of questions about what children understand or don't understand about death, so I thought a series of posts about children and death would be helpful. Today I'll start with outlining the developmental stages and concepts of death for children. Next Monday I'll move into realistic reactions for each age group, followed by helpful approaches for adults to use with children to intervene and comfort them, such as examples of how to convey and verbalize the harsh truths of death.

First there are three concepts that we refer to when we discuss death:

Universality = all alive things will eventually die
Irreversibility = things that have died cannot come back to life
Nonfunctionality = once something dies, it ceases all physical functioning

All children vary in their understanding, of course, and there are no hard and fast rules, which I know writers would love to get. But here are some basic guidelines as to what children generally understand at what age.


These children can't understand any of the components of death, and they don't have much or any language to attach to any thoughts about death that they might have. They sense loss through reacting to the emotions of others. They are observant of adults and know something is wrong, which upsets the security of their world. If a pet dies, a child this young probably wouldn't understand that the pet has ceased to function. Even if you included them in the burial in the backyard, the child might think of the pet as romping around under the ground.

Children this age tend to think that if something dies, it can come back to life. They might think the dead person/thing is simply sleeping. They watch cartoons and movies that reinforce this idea (i.e., Rapunzel's tears bring back Flynn Rider in Tangled; Aslan comes back to life in get the idea). They don't think it's possible for them to die. This usually doesn't enter their mind, unless they've had a traumatic experience of losing someone close to them during this time. They also have what is called magical thinking at this age, and can believe that someone died because of a death wish they made or because of some magical spell.


Children begin to understand the nonfunctionality of something that has died. They also begin to understand that death is irreversible, especially for plants and animals. Even though they get the physical component of death, they still have a lot of questions about the biological aspect of death. They might get fixated on death, or even get sad anticipating a death that's not rationally imminent. (For example, my little girl, who turned 6 TODAY---!!!---will have real tears thinking about my death.) However, they don't really think of death as universal, but as something that only happens to people who are old or sick. (Note: if the child has been exposed to situations, like sudden infant death syndrome of a younger sibling, or losing a same-aged peer to a car accident, this lack of universality would change.)


Children begin to have an understanding of all three concepts of death. They really start to fear death, and even think of it as sudden and unpredictable. They get scared thinking about painful forms of death, and feat the void of inanimate suspension that follows death. These children and teens are more likely to have emotional, rather than cognitive, difficulties processing death.

Let's Analyze

You probably have stories, similar to the one I told about my daughter, that convey these concepts using real narratives. Feel free to share any below.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Trilogies v. Three-Deckers: Let Us Know Up Front!

I have a beef with so-called "trilogies" that are saturating the publishing landscape today. The word is being used inappropriately. Here's a few definitions of trilogy in which I've highlighted in red a key point:

1. a series or group of three plays, novels, operas, etc., that, although individually complete, are closely related in theme, sequence, or the like.
2. (in ancient Greek drama) a series of three complete and usually related tragedies performed at the festival of Dionysus and forming a tetralogy with the satyr play.

That means that each book can stand alone. The reader isn't left with that dangling feeling of "Wow...there's only five more pages and a whole lot to wrap up...." Or worse, the reader turns the final page and gapes at the last sentence. Say what?

Authors who want to write trilogies need to understand that readers want a satisfying conclusion to Book One, not a cliff hanger to Book Two. (Click to Tweet!) And if there isn't going to be a satisfying conclusion, then you need to let them know up front that Book One is not the first of a trilogy, but the first of a Three-Decker, or three-volume novel.

You can read up on why and how trilogies started here. In short, Tolkien is given a lot of credit for starting the trend (though it existed long before), and poor Tolkien is the worst example, because he never intended his book to be split up. It was only published in three parts because of economic reasons ($ of paper at that time, more precisely). The Lord of the Rings is actually a perfect example of a Three-Decker.

For you visual learners out there, here's the breakdown of the relationships between the three books in a trilogy and in a three-decker:


Each book stands alone, but is related to the other two, whether this be through similar characters or themes. A common method is that secondary characters in Book One become primary characters in Book Two. Each book is not contingent on the others to get a full story line or character arc. They each have satisfying conclusions. There are NO cliffhangers.

Each book moves toward a final conclusion. Books Two and Three aren't readable as stand-alone novels. They build off of each other, with Book Two picking up right where Book One left off, and Book Three picking up where Two left off. They are major cliffhangers which send you to Amazon immediately to check out if the next book is available. If it is, you're in frenzied delight. If you have to wait another 9-12 months, you end up frustrated and unfulfilled. 

There's nothing wrong with either literary means of delivering your book to the world. Publishers often use the wrong terminology to tell readers both of the above scenarios are trilogies. You can hardly expect a publisher to slap a sticker or graphic on the cover saying, "Installment One" or something similar. If it tanks, then they aren't on the hook for more.

Perhaps this is just one of my pet peeves? Maybe no one else out there feels the same way. Many dear friends have written Three-Deckers, calling them trilogies, and frustrating me with having to wait for the rest of the installments...sometimes up to a year! Had I known up front, I would wait until the whole thing is completed, so that I get a satisfying conclusion.

Let's Analyze

How do you feel about Triple-Deckers being marketed as trilogies? Does it bother you to have to wait in between? Do you forget what happened in Book One during the wait?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Crazy Crushes and Lack of Trust

Dear Jeannie,

Perry is a good-hearted, smart, and perfectly capable heir to his family's holdings. He's well-trained and self-possessed. Except around Rachel. Every time she moves, or breathes, or speaks, she sends him into an absolute frenzy of idiocy. She makes him clumsy, physically, but more often with the things he says and always putting himself in the wrong. Rachel has no patience for fools, and works around him when she has to put up with him. His current coping strategy is to shut up and hold still if she's in the room. This is not helping him win her over. The 'why' of this is partly a mystery. There's an element of attraction, but Perry's inability to work through that remains a bit of a puzzle for me. More relevantly, what can he do to get over his perpetual gobsmackedness around her? He's tried befriending her loved ones, fighting her enemies, and providing aid in whatever form he can, but she ignores, misconstrues, or takes enormous offense at his efforts. Perry would like to be able to talk to her, but his brains dribble out his ears in her presence.

Foolish in Farmingham

Dear Foolish,

Wowzer. Sounds like he's got one a heck of a crush. Its not unheard of for brains to fry in the presence of someone we greatly want to impress or have admire us. But I'd think Perry should have a few other exceptions to his self-possessed capability besides Rachel. A suggestion for more believability would be to have him feel incompetent (and/or actually be that way) around his mother or another woman who is commanding or he feels he has to perform to win her over. As to why he does this? The question made me laugh, as you created him that way. LOL! Using the behavioral therapy intervention of exposure, the idea would be that the more exposure he has to her, and the more gradual their interaction level (which makes sense in a romance), the less his anxiety would be. You're describing an anxiety response, and it should decrease over time, just like butterflies usually don't flutter quite so grand after you've been dating a while. If this doesn't happen, he'll be like Stan Marsh on South Park, who always barfs in front of Wendy Testaburger, the girls he likes. After a while, your reader will get tired of his inability to loosen up. Best of luck to you!

Dear Jeannie 

Skylar, who had previously been an introspective, thoughtful child prone to moments of distraction, was given wings as part of a magical experiment at the age of nine by a mage. Several of these "experiments" existed, and they formed a sort of youth club structure that Skylar found himself leaning on for support a lot. A stranger attacks their group, killing everyone else and breaking one of Skylar's wings (and preventing him from flying). He blames this attack on his sister because of her previous threats to tell about his wings. Now, at 15, Skylar is a bitter, mistrustful character who won't allow anyone but his two closest friends to get anywhere near him. Is this is a feasible reaction to what's happened to him and are there any other likely psychological effects? And since he loved flying and had almost learned to accept what had been done to him because of that passion, how would he have reacted to being unable to fly? 

Broken in Baltimore

Dear Broken,

Whether his sister was actually behind the attack, you didn't make clear, but regardless he'd have very little reason to trust people if he thinks his own sister would sell him out. So no, I don't think it's unreasonable that he'd be bitter and mistrustful. Actually, I questioned his ability to make friends with even two people after an event like this. How did that happen? If all the other experiments were killed, and they were his "safe zone," (a place where he fit in) and he doesn't know of any others like him, then I wouldn't see him making friends all that easily. Not being able to fly would be devastating to him. He was changed because of that passion, and then to have the one truly special thing about him (yes, granted, it was an experiment) taken away or altered, even for a short period of time, would usher in a grief reaction. He might be depressed and withdrawn. Probably sullen. He could even act out more, b/c he wouldn't have that outlet of expressing himself for a time. He might have wished not to be experimented on for a time, but to lose it would almost be like buyer's remorse...unless he thought he had a chance of being normal. You didn't mention that this was a possibility, though, since the wing was just broken and this implies a healing factor and eventual ability to fly again. At any rate, your's was a longer scenario to work feel free to write back in if you have more questions. Thanks for writing in!


I might have some answers. Leave your comment below, anonymously, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my responses in future Dear Jeannie columns.