How do you give really bad news to children? What should you say when a natural disaster hits or when someone important dies? How can you parse a divorce for a child—or bankruptcy or foreclosure or drug addiction or crime?
This world has so many kinds of adversity. Many parents are uncertain how to tell children about them. Here are some tips on what to do and what not to do.
When bad things happen, you may feel a desire to soften the blow. “Your grandfather has gone to heaven” or “to a better place,” you might say. “God needed him.” “Your sister is very sick, but she’ll be better soon.” “Your dad had to go, but he loves you very much.” There is often an overriding impulse to compensate for bad news, to tell the child that everything will be all right even when you’re not so sure.
It can be hard to level with children for several reasons. First, grownups often think the child can’t handle the truth. It is just too awful! It is better, adults often assume, to spare the kid, who will grow up and learn the hard facts in due course. From the grownup’s perspective, the sequence of events, cause and effect and reasons, may seem just too complex.
The underlying rationale for telling younger people nothing or less than we would tell them if they were older is the desire to protect them. We think that youngsters can’t handle reality on the half shell. We think that we are somehow letting them down if we tell it like it is.
And yet a different perspective points to another, more promising approach. It requires us to suppose that the job of parents is less to protect their offspring than to equip them with the skills and resources they will need for life as adults. If so, then we want to show children what to do rather than merely tell them about it. What’s more, we want our kids to learn to trust their own judgment. We want to give them a self-awareness that will guide their decision making down the line.
Seen in this light, bad news actually presents a growth opportunity. It lets us, old and young, learn about the world and about ourselves. Experience teaches us how to cope with grief, loss, anger, fear, and pain. Life will eventually bring our kids these problems no matter what we do. Isn’t it better for us to guide them in working through the issues while they are young so that as adults they have experience to fall back on?
If this idea seems hard to accept, just consider: for all of us, the unknown is scarier than the known. If your mother is hospitalized suddenly, you might worry yourself half to death, imagining what the problem might be. Isn’t it better to know that she is having her gall bladder removed and not open heart surgery?
The unknown, and particularly death, that ultimate black box, provokes terrible anxiety in everyone. Information helps dispel the clouds and keep the fog at bay. Knowledge gives us a reassuring sense of having some control even if it’s purely intellectual. A sense of control helps us manage our anxiety.
Before information can function in this way, of course, we must be able to grasp it. You want your mother’s doctor to spare you the medical speak in favor of plain English. To cope with disaster, people need hear about it in language they can understand. These principles apply as much to children as to grownups.
You might consider, looking at any given situation, whether the evidence of the disaster is in plain sight, for example the effects of a hurricane or a fire, or whether it is more abstract, such as death.
If the child has some direct knowledge of the disaster, invite questions, and answer these. Your child’s questions will indicate primary areas of concern. Your answers need simply to be understandable, given the child’s age and stage of development. For an example of this approach applied to the November 2015 massacre in Paris, read this article. Notice that in talking to children about the shootings, the journalist François Dufour was careful not to offer false reassurance that there would be no recurrence. Uncertainty about the future is something that children as well as adults must grapple with and ultimately accept as part of our shared reality.
If the bad news pertains to something the child has not witnessed, you may need to explain it by analogy. Let’s say your four-year-old child’s grandmother dies. You can help your boy grasp the nature of death in terms of things that are already familiar to him. The bereavement counselor Virginia Fry suggests telling very young children that the dead body is like an empty orange juice carton. Once the juice is gone, the carton isn’t needed anymore.
If there will be a funeral for someone who has been important in the child’s life, if possible let the child decide whether or not to attend. To facilitate this decision, describe what your child can expect to see if he does go: people in tears, many strangers in dark clothes, people speaking about the grandmother’s life, an open casket. You can go to the funeral home and show your child the empty parlor before the wake takes place.
When you allow your child to make a decision, it is truly his. He cannot reproach you in later years for denying him the chance to say goodbye to his beloved Oma. If your child makes age-appropriate decisions for himself, he develops his self-confidence and powers of judgment. At the same time when you step back, you reinforce the respect you and he show each other as human beings. Detaching in this way of course requires you to address your own anxiety about protecting him.
It is important, of course, to explain harsh reality in terms that respect not just your child’s developmental stage but her knowledge of boundaries. If the disaster is divorce, remember your daughter knows the two of you as parents and not as adults with their own foibles and human needs. You will need to present the reasons for the divorce, which destroys the nuclear family that is the child’s world, as having to do with grownup stuff and not with anything she has done. Your child should not be exposed to the details of the conflict.
Children need to feel loved. They neither need nor want to know about their divorcing parents’ messy private lives. Even if the cause of the split is contentious—infidelity or addiction, for instance—don’t disparage your ex in your child’s presence. Model empathy if you can. Respect your daughter’s need to love both parents without being forced to choose between them.
We are no less ourselves when we are young than when we are old. We are all constantly becoming. Coping with bad news is a life skill. As parents, we want to give our children the best possible tool kit for dealing with adversity, since a time will come when we will not be around to protect them.