Telling children bad news is something no parent likes to face, but it does happen eventually in every family, and how you share bad news is something to consider – especially if you especially sensitive children or young children who might not fully understand what you’re sharing should you say it wrong.
Wait to Have a Full Story
Before you go breaking news to your children wait until you have as many facts as possible. Children are prone to taking the facts you offer and filling in any missing details with their own imaginations. Being able to tell a complete story and paint the whole picture is the best way to present information. Granted, you don’t always have everything you need to know, and waiting too long to share information can be dangerous as well.
When speaking to your children about the issue, don’t invent facts or share things you hope or think as facts. Stick to the story, but tell it in a gentle way. If the family is moving, for example, share this with your children and include details about where you’re going and the kind of home you’ll be looking for. If you’re hopeful the new home will have a swimming pool and a soccer field across the street, you might hold off on discussing these dreams with your children. While it can make the news much easier to swallow for your distraught child, the disappointment will be that much more powerful if you can’t deliver on that swimming pool or end up across the street from regular neighbors rather than the fabled field.
Faith, Fibs and Lies
When breaking bad news, avoid the urge to lie. Granted, if you strongly believe something might occur, consider sharing your belief with your child. Fibbing is dangerous territory. Telling a child his dog went away, but you found another dog when a pet is died and replaced is a bit too much of a lie for most children to swallow. It is far better to use the truth and explain to your child that the dog was sick and died so that he wouldn’t hurt anymore. Then introduce the new dog in a completely separate capacity than the old dog. You might want to wait a bit, however, before introducing a new pet after one dies as your child might become confused about how she should respond to the new dog and how to grieve for the dog that passed.
Fibs that are a bit more in line with bending the truth or telling a certain version of the truth might be more acceptable. If your partner left due to an affair, your children don’t need to know the full sordid story immediately. Bend the truth a bit to leave out the adultery for a time, even though it will be a challenge to do so emotionally. Simply tell your children, preferably together, that the two of you won’t be living together for some time. If you’re certain the relationship is over, you can tell them you won’t be living together any more. Otherwise, hold off on definite statements to avoid explanations later should you work things out. Once your children and you are over the brunt of impact, you can gently pick through an explanation of your partner’s new roommate. Lying about something such as a partner leaving the family or moving can destroy trust between you and your children and should be avoided.
Use Age Appropriate Language
When explaining to a four-year-old that his beloved fish has died, you’ll certainly use different phrases and terms than you would a ten-year-old. Helping a child understand and process the news is critical. Using terms he might not understand and might not question can leave him confused. Use simple terms and clear, concise explanations for children of all ages. Try to avoid extra statements that might give conflicting messages or confusing details to a child.
Allow Time for Grief
For many children and adults as well, grief is a new emotion to deal with. The feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and despondency that come with sad news take time to process and the child who isn’t used to feeling sad or angry might need extra time to process and work through these emotions. No matter how ready you might be to move on into a new lifestyle and home following a divorce or death, don’t rush your child. She needs more time and more assistance in expressing her emotions.
While focusing on your child’s grief, be sure she fully understands that it is okay to feel the ways she is feeling. Anger is just as normal as sadness. Helping her express, work off and cry about these various emotions will allow her to process them correctly. If you’re concerned about your child’s coping during a difficult time, strongly consider therapy. Children’s therapists are experienced in helping children with tough problems and emotions. They are also a handy third-person to help your child if she’s been working hard to not upset you or others in your family with her own emotions. Indeed, it is the quiet child who seems to have adjusted immediately who needs the most help in letting go of grief and other emotions.
Tell News Together
When possible tell news together with your partner or with other family members. Being surrounded by the people who love you is always comforting when news is bad, and telling your children together also ensures everyone gets the same message at the same time. If your news is followed by a question and answer question, all children can benefit from the additional information as well. The most important time to tell children news together is when the news is related to the family. Should there be a separation or divorce in the works, you should absolutely tell children together assuming you can find unified ground to do so.
Choose the Right Moment
When you tell bad news is just as important as how you tell it. Ideally, you can share bad news toward the end of the day after the bulk of the day’s events are done. The dinner table or in the living room after dinner are good times to do this. Share the information, discuss it as a family as much as possible and then your children will have a shorter time to dwell on the information before bedtime.
As the family winds down for bed, make it a point to spend with each child in the quiet before he falls asleep. He Your child might have more questions or simply be needing a bit more reassurance that everything will be alright for him or that you’re not leaving, too. Talk to him a bit, answer his questions and as he sleeping, his brain will work hard to organize all of the new information into the right order and help him understand and process it. Everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep.
Unless it is unavoidable, don’t share news in the morning. Learning something bad in the morning will taint the day and give your child more time to roll around the news and think of it in different lights. While this might seem like a good thing on a higher level, most children will roll the news into a more creative light making it seem a bit worse than possible. Telling bad news in the morning before school or a big event can also create lasting effects for your children in this regard as well.
Consider the Child’s Perspective
When you must share bad news with your child, it is safe to assume that you’ll also be hurting on some level. Sharing the news of a death hurts a parent twice as much in fact. She hurts from the loss and she hurts knowing the news will hurt her child as well. When sharing the news, consider your child’s perspective. She might not have had more than a few years with her grandfather before he passed, but focus on her happy memories.
Don’t dismiss her worries or concerns as silly or nonsensical if she discusses them with you. It might not make sense to you that she’s worried about Grandpa’s watch at a time like this, but children with their funnily detailed minds might only recall that Grandpa’s watch died, too not too long again and that was fixed with a battery. She might be wondering if there is a solution to the death, much like there was a solution to the watch’s death. Listen carefully to your children and have them explain their thoughts until the reasoning makes sense.
There is the very real possibility that your child’s sense of logic and reason will never truly make sense to you, but at least you can figure out what sort of things she’s asking – even if you can never figure out why. Remember that teenagers are also going through an interesting time of development and can be just as creative in their questions and rationales as young children. The teen that is suddenly more concerned with her appearance after Grandmother passes might be mourning her grandmother by doing the things her grandmother always wanted her to do. Or she might be trying to look her best so her grandmother will be proud of her. Don’t dismiss things as being callous or self-centered until you have a chance to really discuss and then dissect them –especially with teens who are a bit off kilter anyhow.
Leave the Conversation Open
No matter how much it pains you to have to keep discussing it, leave the conversation open to additional questions, comments or concerns. Your child might come back in an hour with additional questions or she might come back in a week. Be sure your children know that you can talk about it anytime and be sure that you really mean it when you say it. Blocking off memories and feelings is easier for some adults that talking about it, and for a child to want to discuss it repetitively can be especially challenging. Yet, while it’s a challenge, being able to discuss the bad news at any point is extremely valuable for your children and will help allow them to process information.
Go Ahead and Cry
When sharing bad news, your losing control of your emotions gives other the right to also. While cursing and screaming the fates might not be entirely suitable for a family discussion, crying while you talk about death or divorce is perfectly acceptable. Your children should see that you have emotions in the same way they do. You being upset allows them to be upset. More valuable is your children watching you deal with that emotion and learning to put it aside and build up something positive again following the initial grief.
Once the initial grief is spent, however, do make an effort to avoid getting upset time and time again in front of your children. Seeing you cry over the news once makes a statement to them about acceptable emotions. But if you’re languishing and crying every day, you might not be able to properly care for your children and you children might become concerned that you aren’t able to give them the proper amount of attention through the tears. Save additional crying for times that you’re alone.
Apply Distraction Carefully
There is a lot to be said for the art of distraction. It can soften news and help a child deal with the news in a less obtrusive way than they might be able to otherwise. But limit distractions to ensure your children still have a healthy balance of emotional processing time. Keeping your children busy during times of grief will help them to not wallow or allow those over active imaginations to work over-time, but don’t keep your children so busy they don’t have a chance to even discuss or grieve over the loss.