'Hold Space For Their Grief': Central Texas Therapist On Helping Kids (And Adults) This Summer

Jun 11, 2020

We're embarking on a summer unlike any in decades: A pandemicProtests and demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. A looming presidential election involving one of the most divisive presidents in history.  

This year has already seen a presidential impeachment, a disrupted school semester and record unemployment because of COVID-19. Many children — and their parents or adult caregivers — are entering this summer hurting, angry and worried. 

Junice Rockman, a neuropsychotherapist with the Central Texas private practice JRocktherapy, says this year's circumstances present an opportunity for adults to be authentic with themselves and the young people in their lives.

"We get to not be perfect. We get to not try and pretend that we are," Rockman said. "We have to look at this ideal self, this perfect person that we think should have all the answers."

While Rockman supports letting go of an idealized version of parenting, she does encourage parents and adult caregivers to reassure young people that "whatever comes our way, we're going to give our very best" and "get through it together."

She says tough times can be a chance to teach young people self-reliance.

"You're teaching them, no, you don't run to any one person, any one government, any one institution, any one man, any one woman for all the answers," Rockman said. "Some of those answers are going to come within."

What is perhaps the most valuable thing parents and adult caregivers can do to help young people through difficult times?

"One of the greatest gifts that you can give them is to open up your heart and your mind, to expand it to be large enough to be able to hold space for their grief," Rockman said. "It's not your role to fix their pain."

Listen to the interview below or read the transcript for more from Rockman on how adults can take care of young people and themselves.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: We get to not be perfect. We get to not try and pretend that we are. We have to look at this ideal self, this perfect person. We think we should have all the answers, we should be able to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s and have everything organized, comfort our children, comfort ourselves, comfort our neighbor and never fall apart.

Look, it is OK to let down and cry. It is OK to take a long walk. And it's OK to tell your 3-year-old or 13-year-old or your 30-year-old, “I don't know. But what I do know is that whatever comes our way, we're going to give our very best. We're going get through it together.” That you know for sure.  

KUT: I imagine it's tough for a lot of parents and adult caregivers not to have those answers. And it's tough for kids not to get a firm or specific answer. It's got to be so hard on both ends of that equation.  

Rockman: You and I have probably talked before about setting up healthy interpersonal relationships and moving away from complete independence where it's like me against the world and I don't need anyone, but also moving away from codependence. And to be very frank — and I say it in the most loving way that I can — I think a lot of times as parents, we cultivate very highly codependent relationships, and then we send our adult children out into the world learning to have an inordinate amount of need and dependence on other people and not trusting their own gut.

This is a really good opportunity, I think, to set up healthy interdependence to where you're teaching them, “No, you don't run to any one person, any one government, any one institution, any one man, any one woman for all the answers. Some of those answers are going to come within.”

Remember, children as well as anyone that's in your care, to some extent, we all neural mirror each other. So they're going to be picking up on your energy. If you are feeling unworthy and incapable and frantic within because you don't have all the answers, more than anything, they'll pick up on that.

But if you tell them, “I don't know. This is what I do know. Do you have any other questions or ideas?” I've seen a lot of children just walk away and be like, “Oh, OK, well, keep me posted.” And you’re surprised. Sometimes we project a lot of that anxiety onto them. You have permission to say, “I'm not sure. But as soon as I know, you'll know.”

And then just know, even with all the routines and all the letting go, you still may have really tough days where you just want to just cry. You can take a longer shower and do that. Or you can put the children to bed early so you can do that. You can call a good friend and just let down or reach out to health care professionals. So it's going to be an ebb and a flow.

KUT: Because of the way the school year went, students didn't get to see their teachers or their classmates to say goodbye like they normally might. And of course, seniors didn't get the traditional rituals of graduation and all that comes along with that. How can parents and adult caregivers help children process those losses?  

Rockman: One of the greatest gifts that you can give them is to open up your heart and your mind, to expand it to be large enough to be able to hold space for their grief. I think it's a very American idea, when the going gets tough, the tough get going and let me help fix it. But I want you to get that it's not your role to fix their pain.

I think that it's more important that you sit with them and that they feel safe to cry and to talk about and to complain about and to experience anger. Some young people or your children may not show it as sadness. They may show it as anger. But anger is a secondary emotion. It’s still derived in deep sadness and disappointment and loss.

You may just have to expand your heart and your capacity to hold space for their disappointment and not to try and say, “Oh, well, look at the bright side. Oh, well, at least consider this. Oh, well, maybe next year.” Just, “Really? Tell me more about that. Oh, that sounds really tough.”  

KUT: I wonder if also part of helping young people process the losses and grief that have been happening during this period is that we also probably need to give ourselves space to do that, too.  

Rockman: Yeah, and anyone can look up online the stages of grief. There's denial. There's anger. There's bargaining — "well, if I would have been this, maybe it would have turned out like that." But eventually we want to work to acceptance.

But I also want to let you know, if you're like, “I did grieve it, but I'm feeling it again,” it may come in waves sometimes. I really do believe as practitioners in the health care field, we are taught we can only take our patients and clients as far as we ourselves are willing to go in our own work. I think that is so true for any person, whether you're a parent or not. You can only take somebody as far as you're willing to go.  

KUT: We've been talking a lot about what parents and adult caregivers can do to help children during this time. But what about the other way? What can children and young people do to help things go better at home, especially as they're out of school and their time is shifting? What can younger folks do to help make things go better?  

Rockman:  In order to maintain a healthy society, we have to get back into a collective mindset and move away from individualism and self-centeredness. This is a really beautiful opportunity to say to your children, “Hey, I need help sometimes, too. Actually, every day, I probably can use some support with something.” So, “Hey, why don't you start checking in with Dad? Why don’t you start checking in with Mom or your caregiver?” And if that person is able to do so, “Hey, can you check in with me and just see if there's something that I might need some help with because I do need help, and I'm happy that we're in this together.”

The other thing is you can actually create some new chores — where you say, “Hey, I know that you used to do X, Y and Z, but now it will be so helpful if you added laundry to that or the trash or can you just go out and get the mail or you feed the dog.” And it gives a sense of autonomy and a sense of self-efficacy for children and for people that live under the same roof regardless of the age, to just say, “Yeah, I can take that on. Let me help shoulder that.”

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.