How to have difficult conversations and breaking the news of a loved one’s death to a child is challenging. Depending on the child’s age, you will need to be intuitive and conscious of your chosen words. Topics like death, cancer, divorce, and bullying require adept conversational skills that won’t further traumatize the child. At such moments, you may be tempted to save them the stress and emotional pain by watering down the situation’s gravity. But in a world of round-the-clock news coverage and mobile phones, there’s only so much you can keep your child away from even if you tried. Children are observant and curious, and they may come demanding answers at some point. Getting your child to open up to you is a skill. Learning how to talk to children about difficult situations is slightly different as you are setting the agenda.
Every parent’s instinct is to focus on the good times and good things. Unfortunately, the world is a mixture of good and bad. On that ground, your child needs to have the full picture, with a delicate balance that shows that good or bad is a sliding scale. Many pre-high school children struggle with the concept of keeping bad news in perspective. They are very polar in their opinions if something is good or bad. Though your child may be little now, remember that you’re raising an adult in the end.
Difficult Conversations to Have With Your Child
Below we talk about specific examples of difficult conversations. Generally, a proactive parent takes the initiative to have difficult conversations. Not putting them off or dealing with the fallout when they happen to find out. Some parents make the honest mistake of skirting certain events’ depth as they don’t want their child upset or burdened. But most children can sense when they’re being blown aside or lied to. Trust is so fundamental to any relationship. It can take years to build but a moment to lose. You know your child best, however, below are some situations where you might have to ways to have difficult conversations with your child:
- Death and dying. Nothing can prepare anyone for the loss of a significant person. Death is part of life, and it’s everywhere. No matter how much you try to keep your child away from the subject, they will someday encounter it. They may see a dead insect or bird outside, on the television, or hear it from the radio and come asking questions. It is best not to avoid these lesser examples and shy away from them as it prepares the ground for the inevitable loss of a grandparent. Engage your child in a conversation about death using clear language. Research led by Sarah Longbottom, a researcher at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, warns against the use of euphemisms like ‘She’s passed on’ or ‘We lost her.’ These euphemisms avoid the biological realities of death and imply that the dead can return. This can be a bit misleading for children. We all have our own views on what happens after death, but you would be doing your child a disservice if you suggest that death is not final in terms of our relationship with that person on Earth. We have a specific article on helping your child understand and deal with grief.
- Discrimination and prejudice. Although this isn’t comfortable, it’s essential to start this conversation early. Your family may be on the end of prejudice daily or may not realize its effects. Whatever the case, parents often feel they’d rather not draw attention to it. But as your child grows, they begin to notice people who look different from them and those who get treated differently. Sweeping differences under the rug may cause your child to do their best to ignore and not ask questions because they’ve learned to see it as a taboo subject. Racism and prejudice come in many different forms. An empathetic child needs to be aware of what forms it may take.
- Sex and body changes. The present generation of children is more open about sex and changes to their bodies than the previous ones. But for some parents, it still makes for an awkward conversation. I am afraid we will even have to talk to our children about masturbation. Sex is a natural part of human life, and your child needs to be educated adequately on the subject. This is because sex and body positivity is connected to self-care and self-esteem. The more you are knowledgeable about sexual education, the better equipped your child is to understand, accept, and take care of their body. However, if your child will become informed about what is happening to their body as it happens or get their sex education from social media. It is obviously far better for it to come from you and at an appropriate time. It is also important that they are aware of sexual predators. Not something any of us want to admit, but we need to for the safety of our children.
- Drugs and alcohol. As they go from adolescence to adulthood, every child will someday encounter drugs or alcohol and will need to make a decision. So simply branding drugs and alcohol as bad won’t cut it. That may only heighten your child’s urge to try. Instead, let them know that being curious is okay and that you understand that mistakes are part of it, and they may make some along the way. But it’s totally in their power to choose the right path. Be clear about the consequences that may come out of usage and how it would affect their lives. They need to understand that they are in charge of their lives at the end of the day, and it requires their will to make the right decisions. In this article, we talk specifically about talking about drugs, and this one about alcohol.
- Separation and divorce. This is a very difficult conversation and one that we have devoted a whole article to.
How to Talk to Children About Difficult News
Whatever the topic, bad news is difficult to deliver to anybody. But with your own children, it’s even more difficult because of the empathy you have for them. Children’s ability to understand depends on their current stage of development. So it is essential to use age-appropriate language to give them a clear picture. Below are a few tips on how to break difficult news to your child.
- Prepare to answer questions. If the questions your child might ask only require straightforward answers, then there wouldn’t be much preparation to do. After delivering bad news, depending on the age, your child might struggle to understand. This might prompt questions you may not have deliberately thought about in detail. For example, after delivering news of someone’s death to your child, they might ask, Why do people die? Where do people go after death? Can they come back? Will we all die? In cases like these, you want to keep hope alive while also being realistic. As a result, ‘role play’ how the conversation might go. What trains will the conversation be likely to take?
- Prepare the child. It is good practice to ease your child by telling them that you found out something really sad and want to talk to them about it. I suggest somewhere calm outside without many people around. Try not to choose a location you wouldn’t want your child to associate with the news from then on. When you do find a suitable place, sit facing your child with your shoulders parallel to theirs. It can also be good to have movement for some children. So maybe when going for a walk at the same time. Hold your child’s hands and begin with the most basic detail. Conversations are more comfortable without eye-to-eye contact.
- Be honest. Taking your child’s age into consideration, give them the facts using simple words. You might be tempted to sugar-coat it a little to reduce the impact of the news. Teenage children will find this patronizing and dishonest if they ever find out later. This might cause a breakdown in the relationship between you both. So try and be honest. Research by Erin E. Donovan, a researcher interested in interpersonal health communication, genuinely found that ‘honesty was the best policy.’ Full disclosure led to more closeness between parent and child.
- Give them space and time to process the news. Children react to bad news differently than adults. Your child may carry on as if nothing happened. They may even ask an unexpected question like what they’ll be having for lunch. Please don’t assume that the news didn’t register or that they don’t understand. Children grieve sporadically. Allow your child time to process things and come to you with questions when they’re ready. Also, look out for changes in their usual behavioral patterns. Investigate before coming up with an appropriate solution to restore that sense of calm.
Final Thoughts on How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Child
Knowing how to break the bad news to children is the first step. Knowing how to provide support afterward is the next one. Informing babysitters and teachers to look out for odd behaviors is an efficient way to provide a support system. It can take a long time for it to sink in, so they might keep coming back with questions, often at the most inconvenient time. This is them processing, so just answer them honestly.
Additionally, being open about your feelings can also help the child embrace their own. But if you and your child are especially having a difficult time, you should consider seeing a child psychologist for professional help. Most importantly – just be there with a hug and endless patience!