Life IS messy. It’s full of complications, amazing events and bad events. We can’t protect our children from everything and it’s not our job to; as parents, as caregivers, we are raising children to live in this world, not some utopian world in the future when nothing bad happens. Our job is to raise resilient kids. Kids who can face challenges and not fall apart. Kids who can confidently look for support and who know that they have resources of inner strength for when life gets tough.
From the death of a goldfish to an earthquake and everything in between, life presents us with challenges. All changes, transitions and tragedies are a way to find an opportunity to teach our kids about how to live in and react to the real world.
Support yourself first
Chances are that if you are having to deliver bad news, it’s something that is upsetting you as well. Stop and check in with yourself, how are you holding up? Have you been sleeping? Are you feeling on edge and anxious? What supports do you have in place for yourself? This is going to depend on the situation, but you may need to talk out your emotions with friends or a family member before you talk to your kids. If anything, get the support so that you can work through what you need to say without unloading too much information on your kid because you’ve not processed the news yourself.
If possible try to tell your child with the support of your partner, or another close and loving family member. This way there is more of a feeling of safety and normalcy. If it gets too intense, the other adult can “normalize” the situation by making a cup of tea, something to eat or suggesting a fun activity to do after.
Choose your approach and ask for advice
Use parenting forums to sound others out about developing an approach that will work in your situation. You are never alone in the challenges you face; thanks to the internet you can reach out to others who have faced the same challenges in a way that was never possible before. Other parents have great insights as to how to deal with family crises.
The Direct Approach
Write down what you need to say first. This will help you formulate the most direct way to say what you need to. You’ll also see, when you write it down, what unnecessary “stuff” you are adding into the mix. Kids don’t need to know every searing detail, but they do need to know the basics so they can then ask you questions.
The “Fly casual” approach
Some not so great news that you need to share, like a parent losing a job or a non-serious illness or operation can be told when you are out in a restaurant setting. Because the setting is relaxed and casual, you can be relaxed and casual, and even optimistic about what will happen next. “Daddy’s lost his job but he’s looking for a new one, what should we get him as a present when he finds one?” “I’m going into hospital for a few days, but what activities can we plan for when I’m feeling better again?”
After all, not all of life’s challenges are massive dramas, and your kids need to learn that some things are just part of normal life, upsetting or annoying, but not a massive horrible crisis. Having a “fly casual” approach to some of life’s problems helps you too, because you feel less overwhelmed.
The “How would you feel IF” approach
This is a great one to break news before breaking the news, and is a great one to use if something is going to happen in the near future but not just yet. For instance if it is news that directly affects the child themselves; e.g. “How would you feel if you had to move schools? How would you feel if you didn’t see Grandpa as much anymore?” You can even talk about something happening to a ‘friend’ “How would you feel if Jim was diagnosed with diabetes? Would you see him as being different?” It’ll give your child the benefit of space, a little room to think about things from a distance.
Think about the setting
Where you break the news can make a difference to how the news is received. Choose a location away from home for talking about transitions. Don’t underestimate the power of walking for clearing the head and allowing emotions to “move” through the body.
Sitting in your child’s bedroom surrounded by their toys and history is not the time to be talking about a house move for instance. Instead choose a time outside of the house, perhaps walking down the street whilst looking at other houses. That way you can hen say things like “Imagine what it would be like to live in that place or that one? I wonder what the new place will be like.” You can plan some special changes that can happen in the new place, “How about you get a new poster that you love?” Similarly don’t tell you child there will be a school move when you pick them up from school! Wait until the weekend, so they can have some space away from the school to think about the new adjustment.
Sad news needs to be told in a comforting setting, but definitely not in bed. A child’s bed is where they need to rest and dream; keep all bad news away from their bed and bedroom if possible. Make the living room or kitchen cosy, put some gentle music on in the background, try and keep the atmosphere warm and cosy as you talk. Ensure that your younger child has a cuddly toy to hold. Sit close to your child and maintain reassuring contact as you talk. Stroking their back as you talk to them can provide comfort and ease their emotions, and also relax you both.
Be careful not to ease bad news with sweet food. It’s not an association you want to encourage. But it’s always a nice idea to go out for a family meal after you’ve had to deal with a family crisis, somewhere cheap and cheerful like a pizza parlour can take your collective mind off the stress.
Take age into consideration
The age of your kids will have a big impact on your decisions.
Very young children have few words to express their emotions. They are in a world of feeling and raw emotion. You may decide some news is better not sharing, or you can deliver news in bits and pieces without making it too complicated “Daddy is living down the road now,” and you can fill in more details as time goes on. The earlier you start to seed the news, the more normalized it all becomes.
In a way this is a straightforward age to be talking to kids about problems, as they are pretty open with their questions and their ideas. On the other hand this is also when you will also get the most tears and worries to deal with on a daily basis, as the children start to process information and come up with their own fantastical ideas about what may happen. And keep in mind, it’ll help if you can also get support at school. Most schools are used to dealing with parents separating or deaths in the family; don’t feel that you can’t tell them what is going on, this way your kid can be supported in and out of school .
Teenagers process bad news in different ways than younger children, but they still need your support and strength, even if they don’t look like they do. Your teen will have a depth of emotional maturity and can show you that they can handle transitions and difficult times if you trust them with telling them straight. But you also need to be aware that the child part of them is going to feel vulnerable, and might not want to show this directly.
If your teen is going through important exams at school, ask them how they need to be supported. The most important thing with teenagers is to give them a bit of respect and trust. Ask them and involve them in your decisions. Give them tasks to do to help you if appropriate.
Advice for specific life changes and transitions
Job changes, moving house, moving schools and divorce are all fairly normal events these days. They shouldn’t be approached with exaggerated drama. Your kids are going to go through breakups when they get older. They are going to move house, lose a job or four and have their hearts broken. How we normalize these events will shape how they deal with their own future challenges.
House moves and job changes
These, although annoying are a normal part of life. Start off by telling your kid all the positives first, “You are going to get a great new room,” and then reassure them by saying that they get to keep all their things.
Telling your child that you, or their other parent, has lost their job can be re-framed as, “Mummy is looking for a new job that will be more fun than the old one.” Keep focused on the positives of the new, as opposed to the negatives of the old.
Plan an exciting event to celebrate once the new house/job happens. This encourages a mentality of looking forward with excitement rather than looking back, something that you need to do for yourself too!
Never kid yourself that kids don’t already know there are problems in your marriage. Kids feel everything. They are our little transistor radios, and they transmit and act out when they sense troubles at home. Your splitting is no surprise to them. It’s not divorce that harms children, it’s conflict. Your kids will be happier seeing you both in happy, loving relationships than seeing you both miserable in a loveless marriage.
The question is what are you teaching your kids about a breakup? Use this opportunity to show kids that they can break up with someone and survive. All your emotions will be raw and painful, and it’s OK to say, “This is happening and we are both feeling sad about it.” Ask your kids how they feel about it. Reassure them that you are still going to be secure parents for your kids, no matter what happens.
If the split is happening under extreme circumstances, because of an affair or because one parent is abusive or has just plain left you high and dry, then telling your kids that you are going to be 100 per cent there for them now is going to go a long way in reassuring them. Get a good family friend to come in and spend some time with you doing family events that the other parent would normally be at, it will make the absence of that parent less noticeable, and you’ll have some support yourself.
Life changing health or educational diagnoses
Chances are your kid already knows that they are having struggles at school. Here’s a great opportunity to use the “What if?” technique. Ask them how they would feel if their friend had the condition, talk about it a bit for a week or so to help them let go of judgement. Be open about the tests and diagnostics, and say that you are looking for ways to support some of the things you know they find difficult.
Help them learn the facts by finding websites aimed at kids that give advice about their condition, and be aware of the labels and misjudgments that will get thrown at them, and arm them with info. Kids with diabetes, for instance, often face judgments about their food habits, from people who know nothing about the condition. You could even do a print out that has a quick rundown of facts and fiction about their condition that they could carry to show to relatives or friends.
Serious Illness of a parent or sibling
As soon as kids hear the word ‘cancer,’ or some other serious illnesses they assume it means death. It’s not always, or even usually, the case, and it will help—if you have to have a talk about cancer—to have all the facts at the ready to answer questions. Reassure younger kids that they did not cause the cancer/illness. Reassure them that you love them.
For a teenager who identifies strongly with their parent – they may worry that an illness will affect them when they grow up too, for instance a teenage girl may have to deal with her own fears about developing breast cancer just at a point where her sexuality is starting to play a greater role in her life. Look for extra support from counselling services to support your teen.
Telling Kids About Cancer is a website devoted to having the talk with your kids. It talks about how to prepare for the conversation, and how your kids will learn how to cope by watching you. It also discusses age appropriate advice ,and has a helpful conversation guide that you fill in with your discussion goals. Although it is tailored specially to cancer you could use this caring resource to discuss other illnesses.
Terminal Illness of a child
This is the hardest news to break.
An excellent article by Grief Counsellor Alan D Wolfelt, PHD details this process with lots of helpful advice, including caring for siblings and dealing with your own anxiety. You need support for this. A lot of support. There will be support available from the local hospice and also from your child’s medical team. You don’t have to face this alone.
You might not want to tell your child at all. This article for medical journal Stat News talks about the recommendations from pediatric specialists about this, but ultimately it’s your decision to make, and the last thing you need at this time is judgment.
Telling your other children that their sibling is dying comes with its own challenges. Reassure your kids that they aren’t going to get sick themselves. Talk about how the family bond is there and love is there even after death. They will ask you lots of questions, and this is a better cue as to how much you should tell them. Trust your child will ask you the right questions. Trust that you are doing the best you can.
The death of a parent
You’ll be exhausted emotionally. The funeral, the sheer volume of people you have to deal with. Your own conflicted emotions of pain, shock and maybe guilty relief if it’s been a long illness. All of these emotions need to be talked out yourself with friends and loved ones. And then you have to tell your children.
“There’s no easy way to tell a child a parent has died, but it’s final, it’s not changeable, it is what it is and the sooner you know and face things the better you can deal with them I think,” says blogger The Bionic Widow. The widowed mother writes a candid blog dealing with the ups and downs of her and her young daughter’s life after the death of her partner after a long terminal illness. “Honesty has always been my policy, I think it’s a bit like removing an Elastoplast, you can mess about and spend ages in pain or just rip it off and it’s out there.”
If you have a spiritual approach to death, this is a good time to share your feelings to comfort your child, but if you don’t, you don’t have to invalidate their feelings if they do.
Bionic Widow says she didn’t talk directly to her child about anything spiritual, but that her daughter asks, “Is Daddy looking down on me from Heaven? She tells me often that she misses him, I only ever reply with, “I do too”
This is an approach that both acknowledges and validates a child’s feelings without trying to “fix” them.
“Yes, I can’t fix anything but I can do my best to make things better or as good as can be. Since he died she’s been able to actually have friends over for tea after school, that’s delighted her no end.”
Looking for small ways to live well with the new reality of what has happened can allow space for everyone to adjust and process their feelings. Your child still has a childhood to live and so finding ways to give them a break from grief is key. Tell friends with kids you need their help and see if playdates can be arranged at their houses, or days out for your kids.
In a way we are all dealing with anxiety about events like violence, terrorism, school shootings, war, earthquakes or hurricanes. The media is showing us doom and gloom 24/7 and when big events occur, your kids will hear about them and ask you questions.
Probably the best approach is to be practical about these anxieties and give your child a sense of empowerment for the future. Tell your child that you take their worries seriously and that there are things that happen in the world that you feel sad or anxious about too, but that it’s better to be prepared and to know what to do than it is to worry. The Government of Canada has some great advice for preparing for natural disasters on their website.
Researching this together can actually be quite interesting and you will both learn a lot.
The Today Show has prepared a useful age by age guide on telling kids about school shootings including advice to shield younger children from the news and to focus on the heroes.
Conversations about terrorism are becoming more and more relevant, the BBC in the UK, where recent terror attack have occurred, has some advice on that subject.
Finally, Mr Rogers has the best advice for us all “Always look for the Helpers.”