Talking With Children About Death

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_167842937A close friend of your child dies unexpectedly in a horrific car crash. An aunt loses her battle with cancer. The beloved cat has to be put to sleep. A parent is diagnosed with a terminal disease.

All these are examples of ways children can encounter death for the first time.

A child’s first experience of death often comes when a pet dies. For many children, losing a beloved animal can be the most intense sadness they have felt. It’s important for parents to take a child’s feelings on this seriously, and allow them to grieve how they need to.

Depending on your child’s age, experts suggest different ways of talking about death with your child.

For the very youngest of children, from infancy up to around three years old, kids cannot understand what it means to die, but they still feel the loss. For this age, focus on providing safety and comfort and love. Use simple terms to explain the death.

Preschool children may act out their emotions. Some kids become withdrawn. Others act out and become angry or destructive, or have mood swings. Children might have stomach aches or not feel good. Again, provide support and love. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings if they are able to. At this age, children may begin to draw about their emotions.

School age children have a better understanding of death. You want to be as honest as you can. If you have a belief in the afterlife, your child may find it comforting to think that their friend who died is in heaven. If the idea of life after death is not something you believe in, it’s fine to say that we just don’t know what happens after we die or that we simply don’t exist anymore. Help them find comfort in remembering their friend or loved one. Some kids find it helpful to plant a flower or tree as a reminder of the person who died.

Teenagers may react in both childish ways and adult ways. If your teen processes things verbally, he or she may need to discuss the death over and over again. Listen to them without judgement. Others may withdraw to their rooms, play loud music, or become unusually angry. As with younger kids, encourage them to verbalize what they’re feeling.

As a parent, you want to protect your children from difficult feelings and experiences. It can feel awful to watch your child grieve someone he or she loved. As someone to whom your child looks up to, you have the ability to gently guide them through this experience.

Each person grieves in their own way. Try and give your child the freedom to express their feelings of loss, but also a space for silence. It’s okay if they don’t want to talk right away. Let them know that you are ready to hear when they want to share.

If you are grieving yourself, consider reaching out to others for support, for both you and your child. Often children slip into the role of emotional caregiver. This role reversal can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. And if, at any time, you’re concerned about your child’s grief, seek help from a therapist or counselor. They can advise you on what is normal and what may need to be looked at more closely.

Talking with a child through their first experience with mourning can be challenging. You won’t have all the answers.

The most important thing you as a parent can do is to be present for your child. They will find comfort knowing that you are there to listen, to explain, and to validate their feelings.

This blog provishutterstock_11952625des a broad overview of this subject, and there are numerous excellent resources available on helping children grieve. Here are two of them.









photo from Shutterstock

photo from Shutterstock

Transform Your Inner Critic

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_133427858Your inner critic.

Everyone has one.

Most people want to shut up, destroy, annihilate, or otherwise quiet that voice in their head that says things like, that was a stupid thing to say, or you look so fat today, you’re dumb, you’ll never get anywhere in life. I’m sure you can add your own.

Your inner critic is the voice that monitors your every act, word, and thought.

When it’s out of control, your inner critic can rule your life and ruin your self esteem. It can fill your mind with fears and worse case scenarios.

But what would happen if instead of trying to shut your inner critic up, you would listen to it? I don’t mean listen as in taking its words as true. I mean listen as hear what it’s saying, think about it, and then make your own decision whether or not to believe it.

What would it be like if you viewed your inner critic not in the sense of negative critical messages that should be dismissed, but as a cautious voice that can be helpful if its understood?

How it works is this; your inner critic makes a remark like, “You’re going to mess up this presentation.” So instead of just dwelling on the negative thinking and giving it power, you spend a couple of minutes critically thinking about it. How would I mess up the performance? Is that something that could realistically happen? If so, what can I do to fix it?

You can view your inner critic as  a negative force weighing down on you, or it can be a tool that you use to discern your strengths and weaknesses.

There are two crucial points here.

The first is that your inner critic is neither good nor bad. It points out your insecurities, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s kind of like a coach. Sometimes it can have valid points, and sometimes it makes mountains out of mole hills.

The second is that the more thought and attention you give to a particular idea or internal message, the more power you imbue it with. Dwelling or ruminating on fears is draining and can make you paralyzed with fear.

People often want to categorize their inner voice as a bad thing or a good thing. It’s like the image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The voice in our head that monitors what we’re doing is not good or bad. It’s  just a very observant piece of ourselves whose power is determined on what we listen to and dwell on.

As you listen to your inner critic today, try and hear what it’s really saying. Where is the truth? What is coming out of a place of fear or insecurity? How can you use it to grow?

One thing I’ve learned over the years as a therapist is that the world is anything but black and white. Often the things we run away from are the very things that can teach us the most.


Photo from Shutterstock

When Your Teen is Being Bullied: 5 Things Parents Need to Know

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_74330686No parent wants to find out that their child is being bullied. Yet this is a situation in which many parents find themselves, and it can be incredibly scary and confusing.

Teens are bullied over the same thing generation after generation: physical differences such as weight, acne and facial features, speech differences, mental abilities/disabilities.

Teens get bullied verbally, physically (tripping down the hall, book bumping), and through writing.

One significant difference that teens face now is the vast amount of technology available, which has changed the dynamic of bullying behavior.

Teens are attacked through social media such as Facebook, text messages are sent, photos are sent and become viral in seconds. Sexting is not uncommon.

When you were a teenager, pictures were physical. Notes were on paper. And while rumors could get around quickly, they were not recorded forever on the world wide web.

As a parent of a teen, you can make a difference when your child is being bullied.

Here are 5 things that all parents of teens need to know.

  1. When your child says they are being picked on or bullied, believe them. Your teen may act confident and happy while in your presence, but at school she may behave differently.
  2. Take action. This may be meeting with school administrators and being an advocate for your child. It may be getting him counseling. It may be brainstorming with him about ways to stand up to others if he feels comfortable with this.
  3. Know your school’s policy, and hold them to it. More than once I’ve had to write or meet with school administrators to advocate for a student. It is not your child’s job to ignore the bullies; gaining strength to deal with bullying behaviors may be something to be worked on but the school has a duty to protect your teen and make school a safe place. This could mean changing schedules, having a teen who is hurting your son or daughter attend counseling sessions, or discipline for them.
  4. Talk to your child about how she feels. Does she think about dying? Is she hurting herself? Who are her friends?
  5. Bullying can be a very serious problem for teens. A teenager’s brain is not fully developed, and what is happening now seems like it will happen forever. They feel as if the strong emotions they feel now will always be there. It is hard, if not impossible, for them to imagine a different way of being. So when they feel like they have no friends and people are spreading horrible rumors about them, they can’t believe an adult life where this is not true. So when they say they feel like their life is over, listen to them. Get them professional help.

Being a teenager has never been easy, but teens today have a set of struggles that are unique to their generation. Trying to explain to a 10 year old that a picture he posts on the internet may never ever go away is difficult. It’s our job as parents to do what we can to help them make it through these years.

We can’t protect our children from everything, but what we can do is be aware, be available, and be an advocate for them in these tumultuous years.


Photo from Shutterstock


Making the Most of Marriage/Relationship Counseling

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_151609376People seek marriage or relationship therapy for many reasons.

For some people, it’s because of a crisis, such as infidelity, job loss, illness or accidents.

Others come in because they feel distant and want to grow closer, or they seek counseling before they marry to sort out any difficulties and ensure that they’re ready for life together.

Some couples simply know that something feels wrong but they don’t know what, and they want to fix it.

But once you and your partner have decided to seek counseling, how do you make the most of it? Here are six things to consider.

Continue reading… »

The Importance of Connection, Part 2: Making a Difference in Someone’s Life Will Make a Difference in Yours

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Humans are all about community. By connecting with others, we find support, meaning, reassurance, and joy. Even the healthiest among us feels lonely and isolated at times. For those who struggle with physical or mental disabilities, the isolation can feel even greater.

How to people do it?

Continue reading… »

The Newest Face of Trauma: Female Veterans

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S


“Jessica” (pseudonym) was 18 years old when she enlisted in the Army. She was trained as a mechanic, and enjoyed what she did.

The Army provided her the family she didn’t have at home and a sense of belonging and stability. At the time, the United States was not engaged in a war. A year later, this would change.

Jessica was sent to Afghanistan. While there, she was injured when the truck she was driving hit an IED. After her body healed, and she continued in her unit. Like all service people who serve in a war, Jessica saw and experienced many horrific things.

After her time in Afghanistan ended and she was back in the US, Jessica’s body wasn’t the same. She had an undiagnosed TBI (traumatic brain injury) from the IED. She had intense mood swings. She couldn’t concentrate. She had nightmares nearly every night.

These were all problems that Jessica felt like she could talk about with other veterans, friends and family. Things like TBI and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) have become well known and understood.

What Jessica didn’t feel like she could talk about was the rape by her commanding officer, the very person in the chain of command she was expected to report sexual assault to, and who she looked up to like a father.

Continue reading… »

The Importance of Connection, Part 1: How to Get and Stay Connected

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S
Everyone needs to feel connected.

Everyone needs to feel connected.

When I first became a bird owner, I noticed that my cockatiel Sunshine would only eat when someone was near her.

Most birds are flock animals; they rely on the members of their community for companionship, safety, and parenting.

In the wild, Sunshine would only eat with her flock members there to watch out for her.

Like many other animals, humans have an inborn need for community that is crucial to not only our survival but also to our mental health and happiness.

Not everyone needs 40 friends, but everyone needs someone they can rely on to help them through the harshness of life.


  • For some people, it’s depression. One of the key signs of depression is withdrawing from social situations. People who become depressed turn down invitations, fail to show up to gatherings, and limit phone calls and visits with friends.
  • Other times, it can be a change in life — a move, divorce, death in the family, or illness. Many adults I’ve spoken to have said that when they graduated from high school or college they found they had a hard time making new friends in the ‘adult’ or working world.
  • Many people are so afraid of rejection that they stay away from getting close to others.

    Continue reading… »

Bad Relationship Advice: Our Top 10 List

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S


There is a lot of relationship advice out there; friends, family, and coworkers are willing and eager to share their thoughts.

Over the years, I’ve heard and read some awful pieces of advice.

Here are the worst of them.

10. If you love her enough, you can get her to change.

  • ANY advice that has ‘change’ in it is bad news. You can’t make anyone change, and if you expect them to you’ll be met not only with resistance and frustration, but failure.

9. No one will ever love you as much as he does.

  • This is a phrase that is often used to keep an individual in an abusive relationship. Love comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It might be true that no one will ever love you exactly like someone else,  you will be loved again. Don’t allow this bad advice to keep you stuck in a harmful relationship.

    Continue reading… »

5 Easy Ways to Overcome Negative Thinking

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_80347894This past weekend, I found myself 400 miles and 3 states away from home with $16 of cash, a half tank of gas, but no credit cards.

I pulled into a gas station and asked if they would take a check. Nope.

How about a credit card number phoned in from my husband? Nope.

My random gift cards were worthless here. I was worried.

I was desperate. I went back to my car where my young daughter sat and asked her if I could borrow the money in her coin purse. She had $2.38.

Digging through the crevices and corners of my car yielded another $1.03. I went inside and placed the pile of change in front of the cashier. The total amount was $19.41, a little less than 5 gallons of gas.

In my mind I was going through everything that had gone wrong. Why did I forget my credit card? Do hotels take checks from out of state? Do restaurants? What would I feed my daughter? Where would we sleep? How could I be so stupid???

I was going full force into negative thinking. I finally realized that my thoughts weren’t doing me any good at all. In fact, they were harmful. With my mind full of what if’s, there was no room or energy for realistic problem solving.

Once I slowed down I realized that my daughter wouldn’t starve, I could find a way to get some cash back from a store, and that I was resourceful enough to deal with this situation.

I did some mental arithmetic and discovered that I could keep my miles per gallon quite high if I used cruise control and didn’t rush. At 42 miles per gallon or more, I could possibly make it. And if I didn’t, I would be close enough to have someone come and get us.

Negative thoughts often sneak up when people are stressed, anxious, or depressed. And once they take root, they can impede more helpful, critical, and logical thinking.

Here are 5 simple and easy ways to manage negative thoughts when they appear.

Continue reading… »

Excuse or Explanation: Is There a Difference?

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

shutterstock_43783042“It wasn’t my fault!”
“She made me do it!”
“Everyone else was doing it!”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“He started it!”

Do these sound familiar?

For some people, these phrases may bring back memories of their childhood, or they may have heard these statements from their kids.

Despite sounding childish, everyone has said something similar in their adult life to a spouse, police officer, family member, or friend.

In counseling sessions, I frequently hear how people struggle with the difference between excuses and explanations.

Some people hesitate to give any explanations; they see explanations and excuses as the same thing, and they don’t want to be seen as giving excuses.

Others go to the other extreme and take no accountability for his or her own actions, blaming everything from their upbringing, their stress load, their partner or kids, for their wrongdoing.

Although it can sometimes be unclear, there is a difference between an excuse and an explanation.

People make excuses when they feel attacked. They become defensive.

Excuses are often used to deny responsibility. People make excuses when they feel attacked. They become defensive.

Explanations help clarify the circumstances of a particular event. Explanations are less emotional and less pressured than excuses.

Sometimes, the only one who can really know if their statement is an excuse or an explanation is the one saying it. Telling the police who pulled you over that you are running late for work is a good example of this. If you were hoping to get out of a ticket or lying, it was probably an excuse. If the officer asked why you were driving 30 in a 25, and you answered honestly, it was an explanation.

Why does it matter?

Consider the following situation:

Your 14-year-old daughter has brought home a failing grade on her science report. You ask her what happens. She says:

  1. “It’s not my fault! The teacher wasn’t clear on what to include in the project. Everyone else got a bad grade, too.”                                               or:
  2. “I didn’t understand what the teacher said, and I was too embarrassed to ask for help.”

In her first reply, the daughter is immediately defensive and puts the blame on others. In the second example, she takes responsibility for what she did wrong, but explains the situation so her parent can understand the reasons behind the failing grade.

People often feel frustrated when they hear excuses, particularly if the speaker directs the blame onto others.

Why do people use excuses rather than explanations? Often it’s a quick response to feeling attacked.

Imagine you are the 14-year-old girl who comes home with the failing grade. The moment your mom sees your report, she:

  1. Calls you into the kitchen and says, “You know what I said would happen if you got a grade like this. Consider yourself grounded for the rest of the month! No TV, phone, or internet – that will give you plenty of time to get your grades up. What do you have to say for yourself?”
  2. Now, imagine that your mom walks into the kitchen where you’re getting a snack. She’s holding your report with the bad grade, and asks you to sit down. “We need to talk about this,” she says. “I’m surprised and disappointed to see this low grade. We talked about how important it is for you to do your best. You’re a smart kid. Can you help me understand what happened?”

The first response is hostile and places the daughter in a defensive position. She feels as if she’s being attacked. The mom’s goal is not understanding but punishment. In the end, the mom is angry, and the daughter feels picked on and misunderstood.

In the second scenario, mom expresses her surprise and disappointment at the low grade. She explains that her surprise is because she knows her daughter is intelligent. When the mom asks for help in understanding what happened, she takes herself out of the authoritarian role and places herself as a problem-solver alongside her daughter.

In summary:

  • Excuses deny responsibility.
  • Explanations allow for responsibility to be acknowledged, and the situation to be explored and understood.
  • Excuses come from feelings of defensiveness that pop up when someone is feeling attacked.
  • Explanations occur when someone wants to be understood.

When a person brings up a problem with someone — a boss, employee, friend or family member — how the concern is phrased can cause a positive or negative reaction. If the first speaker carefully describes the situation without assigning blame, it’s more likely that the listener will not offer excuses. Instead, the two will be able to discuss the incident calmly and without accusations. Without accusations, there is less need for excuses. Explanations can clarify the problem, and the two can become a team working toward a common goal.

Photo from Shutterstock


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