This is a repost of an original piece I wrote for BlogHer.com.
There are plenty of unpleasant things we have to do as parents: wipe runny noses, clean bottoms, guide our kids through adolescence … The list is long. What we don’t consider to be on that list — or at least I didn’t — was having to tell our children bad news. From the death of a loved one to a school shooting to a terrorist bombing, modern parenting includes almost a guarantee that, at some point, we’re going to be breaking bad news to our children, well before they should have to hear it.
How to maneuver through this responsibility is challenging — and intimidating. At the start of the past year, I thought the toughest topics I’d need to address with my kids would be the plot twists in the Harry Potter book series and whether or Deflategate was real (I live in New England where love of the Patriots runs deep). I was wrong. Instead, we dealt with, among other things, the death of a beloved grandparent. Having to tell my children that they had lost someone they held so close in their hearts while also grieving myself was more difficult than I had expected.
Soon after my mother entered hospice, in anticipation of her death and my having to tell my children that their grandmother had died, I consulted with a social worker and did my research. I also reached out to my children’s pediatrician for help. I recommend the same for anyone in a similar situation. Having professional guidance arms you with the tools you need to talk to your kids, while also building a support system for your family should additional assistance be needed down the line.
Thanks to my preparations, the conversation with my children went as well as could be expected. There were tears, of course, and we continue to grieve many months later. My children have amazed me, though, with their resiliency and openness. I have learned so much from their response to our loss, and, as a result, from our experience, I can share with you six tips for telling kids bad news:
1. Get your emotions in check — Kids are smart and intuitive; they pick up on our body language and tone of voice, sometimes better than adults do. Therefore, when getting ready to share difficult news with your kids first make sure you understand your own emotional response. Will you be able to talk to your kids without breaking down? Is it okay if you cry, or will it upset your kids more? Spend some time figuring out where you are in your processing of the news, and get yourself in a good place before you talk to your children.
2. Plan out what you want to say — With every conversation, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, where the twists and turns and the back and forth will take you, but you should, before you talk to your kids, know the main points you want to convey. When my husband and I had to tell my kids that my mom had passed away, I knew that it would be most important for us to convey that a) they hadn’t caused Grandma’s illness or death, b) the news didn’t change how much Grandma, my husband, and I loved them, and c) it was okay to be sad or mad — in fact, whatever emotion they had was normal. Having a “checklist” kept us on track and focused.
3. Leave time for discussion — Kids will ask questions, so leave plenty of time to have an interruption free conversation. The social worker my husband and I consulted recommended that we talk to our kids on a day when we “didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything.” It was good advice, and we were fortunate to have enough space in our schedules to be together as a family, answering questions and offering comfort as needed. It proved to be beneficial to all of us.
4. Get resources — Finding it hard to open up a conversation with your children? Consider reading a book together on the issue facing your family. Kids books on a number of topics, including grief and loss, divorce, or illness, are plentiful. These resources may provide the start you need to connect with your child, or may be handy in checking in with the child in the days that follow the breaking of the news.
5. Update your network — Who else interacts with your children and should know that something is happening in their life? In addition to family and close friends, consider informing your children’s teachers, the school nurse, the guidance counselor, sports coaches, or clergy — whoever is meaningful to you — about what is going on so they can be there if your child needs to talk. They can also alert you to out of the ordinary behavior — such as acting out in class — so you can follow up at home. I made sure to tell my children’s teachers that their grandmother passed away, and I was glad I did. Their teachers offered kindness and support, and one of them shared with us a grief curriculum she had developed, including several books that were helpful in exploring my kids’ thoughts on loss.
6. Listen — I have found that the most meaningful conversations with my kids about the news we shared happened later. Days, weeks later. And they happened unexpectedly: on the walk to school, in the car on a ride home from Girl Scouts, during bath time. My kids needed time to process everything, and they brought up their concerns or shared their perspectives when they were ready. It was my job to listen — to what they were saying, what they weren’t saying, and how they were acting. By carefully paying attention, my husband and I have been afforded several opportunities to further explore how our kids are doing, and to offer support, as they have needed it.
Most of all, I’ve learned that the magnitude of the news you are sharing and your child’s personality should direct the conversation. And, I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it is to consult with professionals for guidance.
Finally, I urge patience. Processing bad news and healing from it takes time — for adults and children alike. While I wish I could offer a quick fix, I’ve learned that time is the best way to move forward.
Photo credit: The Ghost Who Walks via photopin (license)