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Section 10
Protective Parenting After the Death of a Child

Question 10 | Test | Table of Contents

Knowing the Vulnerability of Children
One or both parents in 13 of the 18 couples where parents spoke of protection or overprotection said that protection/overprotection was rooted in having learned from a child's death how vulnerable children are.

Louise: I became very protective of them at first. I remember, the weeks after [our son] died, ... calling the school saying, and I don't know what I was afraid of ... [Wayne their crossing the street or something].... I was afraid of everything. And I remember calling the school saying, "Don't let them go home with anybody. Don't let anybody take them out regardless of what these people say to you." I'm sure the school thought I was real loony....

Wayne: And sleepovers.

Louise: Yeah, I didn't let them sleep over.

Tina: Initially ... I was very, very protective of [our child who was 3 1/2 years old when his sister died], and fortunately, within a couple of months, I realized I couldn't do that to him. I just thought, "This is crazy. It's not fair to him. He's a little boy; he needs to go out and play." [He] will say things to me like, "Well, Mom, I'm 13. I can do this now." ... Just in the last year I let him ride his bike up to [the gas station] up here. Now, we've had people in this neighborhood that their kids have been doin' it since ... fourth grade. I wouldn't let him do it until he was in seventh grade, ... I don't want anything to happen to him.... Sometimes I'll make a comment when he's arguing with me about why I won't let him do something: "It's not safe," or "I'm not comfortable with it," or "I love you; I don't want anything to happen to you. I've already had one child die; I don't want another one to die." So I don't think I'm an overly strict or overprotective parent.... But there probably have been times where I haven't let the kids do things, and that's in the back of my mind that they could die or something could happen to them.

Nature of Protectiveness/Overprotectiveness
Increased Sensitivity to Child Pain
For some parents, protectiveness was not only about a child's vulnerability to death but about child vulnerabilities of all kinds. In particular, for some parents protectiveness extended to being much more concerned than before the death that a child be protected from physical pain.

Concealing Parental Grief
For some parents, protecting children included limiting how much they let children know about parental grief. Although no parents said that they tried to hide their grief totally from their children, some were glad to have children be at times with people who were not grieving, and some said that they saved their most intense grief for times when their children were not present.

Iris: Because we had been so busy with runnin' to the hospital and all of a sudden there was [bang on table] nothing. And we had not intended to put [our healthy son] in preschool. But then with all this stuff going on with [our son who was sick], we had put him in preschool. And preschool had just started a week or two before [the death]. And so we considered taking him out, and then decided no, he needed some normal people to be around. And so he was going to preschool two mornings a week, and I tried to do all my heavy crying then [laughs]. And I didn't hide it from him that I was sad and upset, but I tried not to be too wild when he was around.

Parents Subordinating Personal Needs
Bereaved parents could be so concerned about a child, or so concerned that the child not be neglected at a time when the child might have strong feelings of grief or fear, that the parents put most of their energy into the child.

Rob: All that period, for at least 4 months, was just survival mode. You're just going through the motions, just keeping busy. And so I don't think either of us recall a lot, at least I don't, of any of those things. We would just go through what was [necessary] that day or what would seem to be necessary to do.... And partly because I think we would go out of our way to doing [everything] possible for [our daughter], .. . our own personal pleasures weren't as important.... How we could meet [our daughter's] needs was our big goal.

Concealing Anxiety to Allow the Child to Have Normal Experiences
Parents who let surviving children have the freedom to play and grow up might do that while feeling intense anxiety that the child could die while being so free.

Kathy: We're worried sick about him. But we let him do everything.... He drives and he goes out with his friends on mountain bikes and does things I really would rather he didn't, but we let him do things. I don't want him to be nuts like me.... When [my husband] says about my overprotectiveness, most of that is worry within myself or expressed to him verbally. I do let them do things that I would rather they didn't, and they are very independent. They're on their own a lot, 'cause I'm not here.

Paul: So this happened, did you start looking at your older son differently in terms of protecting him?

George: I really didn't change that much, because we did do a good job of looking after [our younger son].... You didn't really have to tighten things up with [the older one], because we were concerned, we were cautious.... Just a freak accident.... I didn't want to impose restrictions on my son that were unfair to him, restrict his freedom. And his freedom being that he could go next door, he could have friends over, he could play, he could have overnighters.... Some parents, they've gotten somewhat [Steph: overprotective] yeah, they go to the other extreme

Overprotection: A Problem?
What was labeled as overprotection was not defined as a problem by some parents but was by others. Those who were concerned that overprotectiveness was a problem most often were worried about retarding a child's psychosocial maturation.

Jane: We consciously not to be overly protective. But I have to admit that I do think that, like we've been very protective of her in the sense that we try and give her all kinds of different experiences.... But we're almost always with her, and we're just part of everything she did and does. [It] still [laughs] continue's to this very day. And in that respect I think, and the thing is I would imagine that any parent of an only child, which she is, I mean it's hard to let them grow up ... in some respects. I see her as a little bit less mature than some of her friends, and I suppose it's because we do things for her, with her.

Protective/Overprotective Systems
Sullying Child's Role in Being Protected/Overprotected

Protection occurs in a family system in which the children are players in their own protection. Children may understandably fear that death could return to the family, that they could die or their parents could die. Some parents were aware of this and tried to reassure their children. Also, some children were described as protecting or overprotecting themselves, perhaps out of awareness of their own vulnerability but, as parents talked about it, more commonly out of concern for parental grief and parental feelings of vulnerability.

Louise: Our oldest daughter went to probably more sleepovers [after Will died], because she was more at that age.... She was at one, and all the kids went out toilet papering .... And she wouldn't go. She stayed at the house with the mom. She told the mom, "I'm not gonna go. My mom, if she ever found out, she'd be really upset if I was out after dark. Look at what happened to Will." So I think it kind of made them real hesitant of doing things.

Child Focus and Subordination of the Marital Relationship
Another part of what could be called a protective or overprotective family system is that protection of a child can make a couple child focused. Although not many parents talked about it, a parent devoted to protecting a child may not be as available to the other parent.

Karl: To this day, the kids are number one. I might be a "four." There is no number two and number three. They're all the kids, and that's truly how she feels. And I understand how she feel [she sniffles]. And I don't really put her down for that. I don't think that that's necessarily wrong, but it did have an effect on me. And I think it had an effect on us. But I still feel very strongly about her, and I know that she feels very strongly about me. So it's almost like, well, then, you just let that go. And it maybe is not all that important.

Kathy: Well, I guess, for me, I didn't sweat the small stuff. My marriage became kind of the small stuff [Karl: yeah].... It just wasn't very important to me.

Are Bereaved Parents Overprotective or Are Other Parents Underprotective?
Having had a child die can increase a parent's awareness of the vulnerability of other children and make the parent much more vigilant. Perhaps parents who have had a child die are not overprotective. Perhaps it is other parents who are underprotective. In reading the following two passages, one can ask why all parents are not intensely concerned about a child being driven somewhere by a friend and why all parents are not constantly aware of how vulnerable their children are.

Paul: Did you find yourselves being more prospective of the kids?

Stan: Oh, definitely. Yeah.

Joy: Even to this day [Stan: we still have a hard time], in fact, they just [Stan: letting go] drove up to the ballpark tonight with a 17-year-old neighbor kid. And ... [we were saying], and it's like three blocks away, "[Are] there enough scat belts for everybody?" It's like, "Mom, I am going to have to drive with someone besides you and Dad sometime in my life." . . .

We definitely are more protective. We don't let the kids just go with anybody, not that we did before either. But guess we didn't think quite as much about it.
- Rosenblatt, Paul, Protective Parenting After the Death of a Child, Journal of Personal & Interpersonal Loss, Oct-Dec 2000, Vol. 5, Issue 4.

Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials

- Substace Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2004.

Personal Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about protective parenting after the death of a child.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Katz, A. C., Norr, A. M., Buck, B., Fantelli, E., Edwards-Stewart, A., Koenen-Woods, P., Zetocha, K., Smolenski, D. J., Holloway, K., Rothbaum, B. O., Difede, J., Rizzo, A., Skopp, N., Mishkind, M., Gahm, G., Reger, G. M., & Andrasik, F. (2020). Changes in physiological reactivity in response to the trauma memory during prolonged exposure and virtual reality exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication.

Presseau, C., Contractor, A. A., Reddy, M. K., & Shea, M. T. (2018). Childhood maltreatment and post-deployment psychological distress: The indirect role of emotional numbing. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(4), 411–418.

Smith, K. V., & Ehlers, A. (2020). Cognitive predictors of grief trajectories in the first months of loss: A latent growth mixture model. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88(2), 93–105.

What were parents most often worried about who were concerned that overprotectiveness as a problem? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 11
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