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Parenting: Don't Leave Your Children In The Dark

Sharing Bad News with Kids Isn't Easy, but There are Strategies for Doing it

Even when the news is bad, keeping your children in the dark is a misstep. Children benefit when they are informed about what is happening. Here is some advice for parents on how to share bad news with your children and how much to share.

Be honest

No one likes to be lied to, so make sure when sharing news with your kids you are always honest. While you might not be able to share every detail of a tragedy or a difficult situation with your child, you should honestly share as much as you can.

Don't use euphemisms that could lead to confusion or worse, anger. For example, when speaking about death, Dr. Ann Lagges, a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, advises not to use the words “went to sleep” because, while (children) may not understand the word death, they do understand sleep. It is important not to let the child think they can wake the person or to fear going to sleep themselves.”

Being specific also will help your children contain anxiety and still feel safe in the face of bad news.

Reframing bad news as a positive is also something to avoid. While you might be tempted to do so to make your child feel better, it can lead to confusion and distrust.

“Honesty is key,” Dr. Lagges states in the Indiana University Health post . “Tell them what they need to know, and, if you aren't sure if they understood, ask them to repeat it back to you so you can correct any misinformation. Be prepared to answer questions and provide additional, age-appropriate information. Continue to check in with your child to see how they are processing the news and to help them overcome any hurdles they may have to learning about and understanding the bad news.”

Keep explanations simple. If you don't know or cannot explain something, admit that you don't know.

And keep the conversation short. Tell children what they need to know and allow them to ask questions, but don't push them to talk about it if they aren't receptive. Instead, be ready to listen (see below) when they do want to talk and watch for moments when revisiting the subject seems appropriate.

Be age-appropriate

The key to being honest with your child is being aware of where they are developmentally as well as chronologically. Don't dumb things down, but make sure to use language your child understands.

While death or illness might be hard for young children to fully grasp or to face, a teenager might value the chance to see a dying loved one before they pass and will appreciate the opportunity to be involved in that decision. Conversely, if you make such a choice for your child, it could lead to them being angry.

Be in control of your emotions

Don't talk about bad news with your child until you have had a chance to process it enough to have a firm grip on your emotions. While it is important to show your children it is OK to have feelings about bad news and do so by showing your own, if you are still feeling overwhelmed by the news, they will pick up on your distress and become overwhelmed themselves.

By showing your feelings but not being overwhelmed by them, you also can demonstrate good coping skills for your child.

The American Psychological Association advises initiating conversations by sharing what you have been thinking about rather than beginning a conversation with a question. The APA further advises asking your children what they want or need from any conversation (ie: advice or just to listen), and stresses that “kids learn by imitating. Most often, they will follow your lead in how they deal with anger, solve problems and work through difficult feelings.”

Be ready to help them act

Empowering your child to do “something” in the wake of bad news is a valuable tool in helping them cope. If a loved one is ill and facing mounting medical bills, talk with them about how they can help and then help them to do so. For example, they could hold a lemonade stand and use the money earned to contribute to medical bills.

Be available to listen

Upsetting news affects everyone differently, no matter their age. The most important thing you can do to help your child is to be available to listen to them and make sure you know they can talk to you at any time.

The American Psychological Association offers a great list of tips for communicating with your children ; among the advice it offers is noticing times when your child is more likely to talk and being available at those times, and when your children are talking about concerns, stop whatever you are doing and listen.

Carving out one-on-one time with your child and making time for doing special things also can help reassure your children that they are loved and can share their feelings in a safe, comforting environment.

Have a tough conversation in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted, have a favorite and comforting toy nearby and be ready to answer their questions no matter how awkward (experts advise talking your answers out with someone else first).

If your child is struggling with bad news or if you are struggling with sharing it, a mental health professional, such as one of our family or child and teen counselors, can help. Call us today at 970-227-2770 to learn how we can work together to help your child cope with and thrive after bad news.