The adult world is unfortunately full of problems and worries.  As a result, parents often walk a fine line between burdening children with adult problems and not providing enough information for the child to interpret their environment.  Hopefully the tips below will both help you make such decisions and give you tips for how to have these difficult conversations with your children if you decide that they are necessary.

Adults often say that they did not tell their children about a family crisis or loss because “we were trying to protect them.”  By this, parents mean that they did not want their children to worry about the things that they themselves worry about.   The younger the child, the more likely the parents are to feel this way.  However, what parents often forget is the fact that children, even very young ones, are very observant and sensitive to changes in their environments.  For example, you are four years old, and you see your usually happy mother walking around in a daze and looking sad.  She does not tell you what is wrong, and when you ask, she says everything is fine.  But even your four-year-old self knows that this is not true.  What does the child do in such situations? The child fills in the blanks with their imagination in the same way they do with everything else in the adult world that does not make sense.  Thus, the child might assume that the parent is mad at them or that something bad happened to the parent.   It also suggests to the child that whatever is “wrong” with the parent is too dangerous to tell the child.  Both of these factors often lead children to imagine situations that are far worse than what is actually happening.  These extreme imaginings also often lead to new unpleasant behaviors, such as acting out, that the parent has to deal with on top of whatever difficulty they were already experiencing.  Thus, it is often a good idea to explain to the child what is going on in the family on an age-appropriate level rather than leave it up to them to figure out.

Parents are especially likely to avoid the topics of severe family illness or death.  Many parents avoid talking about such topics if it can be avoided.  However, the child sees the parent distressed and on edge and may benefit from an explanation of what is going on.  However, the distressed parent often does not know where to even begin this kind of conversation if they decide they do want to say something.  Again, the tips below concentrate on speaking to younger children since by the time children are in their teens, this conversation begins to sound a lot more like it would with an adult, and the parents have an easier time imagining this kind of conversation.

A good place to start when thinking about having this kind of conversation is to understand that for young children the world revolves around them. Thus, the first thing you want to do is assure children that their world is safe and stable. Here are some ways to do that:

  • If the current crisis does not affect the child’s world, say that. Explain that they will continue to go to school, go to their activities, eat dinner and go to bed or whatever is their normal routine.
  • On the other hand, if their routine will be effected, explain clearly in what way, and what the new plan is. For example, “Mommy usually puts you to bed, but she will have to be with grandma in the hospital, so Daddy will put you to bed.”   Obviously, the fewer changes, the easier it will be for the child.  To facilitate this, try to keep all unrelated areas of the child’s life as unchanged as possible. This would not be a good time to switch extracurricular activities.
  • Explain what is going on in narrow and concrete words. For instance, “Grandpa is in the hospital because his heart is having trouble working.  The doctors gave him a machine that is helping him.  He has to stay in the hospital until his heart is better and does not need the machine anymore.”  The child does not need all of the information, so provide just enough to put into context the snippets they hear from adult conversation.
  • If there was a death, again the narrower the explanation the better, as this avoids creating fears of everyday things. Consider saying something like this, “Sometimes people get a special kind of sickness that makes their body stop working, so she cannot do the things she used to do any more, like play and eat and sleep.”
  • Try to avoid overgeneralizations as explanations. These are the most common overgeneralizations use:
    • “She was very sick so she died:” This makes children fear illness which happens in their world frequently.
    • “He was old so he died:” To children, most adults seem “old,” so they can have trouble telling apart who is “old enough to die” and even if they have figured this out, they probably know many elderly people and they do not need to be concerned about all of them suddenly dying
    • “He will sleep forever:” This can make children fear going to sleep since they begin to fear not waking up.
  • If a child loses interest in this conversation quickly, let them go. You do not need to get all of the information out to them at once. They may only be able to processes bits, and those things that seem earth-shattering to adults, have no consequences for a child, and thus may be mostly ignored. Do not judge a child’s emotional intelligence by their reaction.  Meaning, do not say to yourself, “My child is so uncaring, he was not even sad that grandma died.” Children grieve differently than adults, let them.  Do not impose adult mourning ideas by saying things like “we cry a lot,” but do acknowledge the way you feel.  For instance, “The fact that grandma is not going to be able to come and be with us again makes me sad, so you may see me cry and now you will know why.”
  • Open the door to questions and memories, despite your visible sadness. Try saying something like, “Even though I am sad about grandma, I still love to talk about all the great times we had together” or “even though I am sad, I can still answer anything that you want to know.”  You want to avoid having the child feel like they have to take care of you by avoiding the subject because you are sad.  Also, tell them that it is okay not to have any questions now, but if they think of any later, they should come back and tell you.
  • Children learn and process through play. Thus, as strange and morbid as it may look, children may include the idea of death or severe illness in their play.  This is normal and should not be discouraged.  However, if you have a chance to be either included in this play or at least observe it, you may be able to ascertain which aspects the child understands and which they do not.
  • If your family has religious beliefs that inform the situation, then explain to the child how what happens fits in. If you do not have religious beliefs, try to be prepared to answer questions regarding what happens to the person’s body after death. Again, keep your answers short and to the point.

Every parent dreads this kind of conversation, and yet death and illness are unavoidable, and so are these conversations.  Often after such a conversation takes place, the parent is even more relieved than the child.  If the first of such experiences goes well and does not appear to be traumatic for the child, the parents are more likely to return to this strategy in the future.



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