Losing a parent or caregiver is difficult for any child, whether the loss is through death, separation, or removal from their home. Working with these children, they are often found to be struggling with grief and adjustment issues that might show up as a significant change in mood or acting out behaviors. Working with children who have been temporarily separated or sometimes permanently removed from their home can sometimes prove particularly difficult when trying to find creative ways to help them work their way through the loss of their parent or caregiver who has been a significant part of their lives for some time, often since birth.
Losing someone is never easy. While I certainly am not wanting to downplay the loss any child feels when a parent or caregiver dies, children who are separated from their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, face a unique challenge in itself. The child knows their parent didn’t die, so why can’t they still be with them? In cases where there has been neglect or abuse, a child may especially have difficulty understanding an array of confusing feelings… “I love my mom, but I didn’t like how she hurt me. But I feel guilty for not being with her but it’s kind of nice that I don’t have to worry so much or be so scared.”
In some cases, children aren’t even particularly sure why they’ve been separated from their parents or caregivers at all. They may not be given much information or they may not even realize that their parent’s neglect or other inappropriate behavior was ever wrong in the first place. From these kids’ perspectives, they have a really hard time understanding why or even how their lives seemed to suddenly be turned upside down. And sometimes, depending on the age of the child, it isn’t appropriate to offer a lot of details; regardless, it still doesn’t make up for the intense hurt and pain they feel from being separated from the only home they ever knew.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Child-centered play therapy, I’ve found, is especially helpful for these children when they are particularly young, but I’ve found that a more directive approach is often needed for middle and older elementary children and pre-teens. Seeking out ideas for techniques to work with these children has continued to result in dead ends. With the exception of a few specific techniques out there on the internet and in books for children who have lost their parent or caregiver not by death but by separation, therapists frequently need to adapt general grief activities for these vulnerable children. While this is certainly not a major problem, I began creating some of my own games, art, and other play activities myself.
The Idea Behind Separation & Loss Jenga
I came up with the idea of creating a Jenga game to help kids who have been separated from their parents or caregivers not long ago. The Jenga game has been a popular therapy tool for many therapists for years, as it can be easily adapted for a multitude of therapeutic purposes just by gluing question strips onto the individual blocks or marking the blocks with various colors and creating corresponding card decks filled with questions to ask or prompts to give children for anything from identifying feelings to learning and practicing social skills.
Coming up with questions for the individual Jenga blocks came easier than I anticipated. There are so many thoughts and feelings in these children’s minds when they’ve been separated from someone they love; pulling these thoughts and feelings out by using traditional methods of talk therapy only tend to work well for some kids (and usually these are the older ones). But give kids an activity or game, and suddenly the same things that a therapist has been trying to help the child express becomes less threatening for that child. There is a lot of psychology behind why and how play (such as playing games or doing other activities) works in the healing of children. Play is a child’s language. It helps them express what they cannot express in words, whether it be because they don’t yet have the language or because they have been more reluctant or it has been too difficult to talk about such painful feelings.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Though I created the game with the idea of being used in therapy between a child and therapist, it can also be played in the child’s new home with their current caregiver(s). Either way, when the therapist or caregiver chooses a question block, they can read the question out loud to the child for him or her to answer or if you feel comfortable in self-disclosing a separation or loss (even if it was through the death of someone you once knew), this can be done also. Regardless of how you adapt the game, just make sure the child you’re playing with knows the rules and what you’re doing before you play. The child may not respond well if they find out after you draw your first question block and direct the question to them if they didn’t know ahead of time that this was what you had planned to do.
It’s also important to validate the child’s answers when he responds to a question. If the child discloses that he feels sad, for example, that he is no longer living with his abusive mother, it will not help for you to say something like, “What do you mean you feel sad? She did nothing but hurt you!” Just. Don’t. Really, don’t.
Even if you think the child’s answer is “wrong” (which by the way, there are no “wrong” answers in this game), validate what they’re telling you because what they’re saying is very real to them. For the earlier example, you could say something like, “It can feel sad when you’re away from a person you love and care about.” Then. Stop. Really. Don’t try to put a “but” at the end of that sentence. Just leave it there. Trust me, not validating something like this isn’t going to help build your relationship with the child. At all. This isn’t the time to refute the child’s beliefs. Please leave that up to after you know more about the child and they are further along in their healing process and have built more trust in you.
(There are no “wrong” ways to feel anyway, regardless of how we might think they “should” be feeling; it’s not up to us to tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t feel. Don’t refute a feeling, even if you’ve known the child for a really long time and you have a good relationship. Give the child permission to feel the way they’re feeling and validate those feelings, even if you disagree or can’t totally understand why anyone could ever feel such a way. Empathize.)
By the way, it’s important to let the child know before you begin playing, that they should only share what they feel comfortable sharing. If they look like they’re struggling to answer a particular question, especially, give them a pass or allow them to answer another question instead. I don’t like forcing children to rush through any healing process. This will also help build your relationship with the child and plant the seed that you’re someone that isn’t going to push him any faster than he is able or willing to go, and that helps to build trust in your relationship.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Creating Your Own Separation & Loss Jenga Game
To create your own game, simply click below and print the Separation & Loss question strips. After you print the questions, I recommend laminating the page for durability. Then simply cut out your questions, and glue each individual question onto a Jenga block. The blocks that are left over can be used as “free pass” blocks, blocks that allow the player a turn without answering a question or they can be rapport (relationship) building blocks.
I find “free pass” blocks to be helpful over utilizing each and every block for a question, as it seems to make kids more comfortable and feel less overwhelmed. Rapport, or relationship, building blocks are ones in which you can use questions such as those found below, to lighten the mood and discuss something a little more fun and less heavy. The topic of losing or being separated from someone you love can be pretty sensitive, let’s cut the child a break! I personally use some of the rapport (relationship) building questions AND a few “free pass” blocks.”
In regards to the rapport building questions I have included in this post, you obviously wouldn’t use all of the strips for this particular game or you wouldn’t have many blocks left for the separation and loss questions. You can pick and choose which of both sets of questions you would like to use. Or you might also decide to glue two questions onto each Jenga block, with one side having a separation and loss question and the other side including a rapport building question. This is what I choose to do. This way, if a child does feel particularly uncomfortable about answering a separation and loss question, there’s a “back up” question they can choose to answer instead.
Separation & Loss Jenga Question Strips
Relationship Building Jenga Question Strips