I hate to say that I’ve had enough experience giving my son bad news to have gotten “good” at it, but you know what they say about practice making perfect…
Unfortunately, between the roller coaster that is foster care, adoption, and just everyday life, I’ve had to have quite a few difficult conversations with my oldest over the years. There were the many times visit with his biological mom were cancelled, the death of a beloved Nana, the termination of his bio mom’s rights and question of whether or not we’d see her again, death of pets, birth of his youngest sibling (who would not come to live with us), Sandy Hook, and, well, the list goes on.
As much as we wish to keep our children in their innocent bubbles forever, life happens and at one point or another, we will be forced to share difficult news with our kids. It is never easy, but I’ve gathered some tricks over the years that help the conversations go as smoothly as possible.
1. As best as you can, take some time and space to process the news for yourself first before discussing with your child. Kids are incredibly intuitive and will take their cue from you on how to feel about the situation. It is best to take some time to process your own feelings before helping your child do the same. The ‘oxygen mask’ theory!
2. On a related note, try to deliver the news in a neutral, calm, matter-of-fact way. This way the child has a neutral base from which to build his/her own feelings rather than only feeding off yours. I was devastated when our cat died. He was the most wonderful fluff of orange that ever graced this earth and I cried about his death for days. But, when I sat down to tell my son, I put on my game face and relayed the news in a gentle but calm way. To my surprise, he didn’t respond with too much sadness; instead, he expressed relief because, “Mickey was really old and sick. I bet he feels much better now.”
3. Which leads me to my third point…try not to have a set expectation on how your child will react. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve expected conversations to be really tough, but they end up being quick and simple. Of course, other times simple things lead to big and difficult talks. Those kids…they keep us on our toes!
4. Less is more. I try to limit my sharing to what is most applicable to the child – the “need to know”. The simpler the news, the simpler it is for them to understand, and begin to process it. There are years ahead for them to wrestle with the immense complexities of life. Limiting the information to the kid-appropriate parts is a way we can keep at least one foot in that bubble. That being said, don’t shy away from answering their questions because that runs the risk of letting their imaginations create answers for them.
5. Let them have something in their hands. Or feet, or whatever. Maybe it’s a boy thing, but my son is always better able to process when he’s allowed to move. Plus, when we incorporate big talks into life’s everyday moments (coloring a picture, throwing a ball back and forth, going for a walk), it helps put the news into perspective and not feel so hugely overwhelming.
6. Make it a ‘to be continued’. Let them know it is normal for their brains to keep thinking about it after your conversation has finished and that you’d be happy talk about it again any time they want. Do quick check-ins in the coming days as a reminder you are still open to talking. Even better, offer up some other trusted adults with whom they could also discuss. I always ask my son if he’d like me to tell his teacher about whatever it is that’s going on, just in case he has a question or need to talk while in school.
7. Finally, conclude (at least this chapter) with a reminder that the bad news is of limited scope and give the child an assurance of their safety. Kids are naturally egotistical so when they are informed of bad news out in the world, it is common for them to think about it happening to them or those close to them. They need adults to reign that in a bit. “Nana died because she was sick and at the end of her life. Everyone is this house is healthy and has many more years to live.” “It is sad that those children were hurt, but you are safe at school.”
Have you had any difficult conversations with your kids recently? How did you handle it? Any tips to add?