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Helping your children deal with bad news

Tuesday, August 7, 2018
By GenaLynne C. Mooneyham, MD, MS, FAAP, FABPN, for KidsFirst
sad child

In this day and age it is nearly impossible to turn on the television without hearing details of a heart breaking event. We live with the disheartening reality that on any given day, the news headlines are more likely to be centralized around political turmoil, school shootings, suicide, terrorism, and natural disasters as opposed to uplifting or edifying stories. So what is a parent to do when difficult news affects your own family? How do you process the loss of a grandparent, a difficult medical diagnosis, or a loved one moving away? The reality is that we, as adults, often seek to “protect” our children. We so easily convince ourselves that we are carrying forward a great cause by hiding difficult news. However, children often have a higher level of awareness of family distress than we give them credit for. Quite simply, they may know far more than we think. Moreover, children and teenagers often fill in the details with their own narrative when we do not provide them some basic understanding of what is happening around them. Children also may crave a safe platform to discuss what they think and feel.  Some families have unspoken rules that “we do not talk about feelings”, “boys should not cry” or “it’s better to pretend that everything is fine”. However, this can unintentionally lead to emotional isolationism and feeling misunderstood. So how do we break out of these patterns?

Identify the message
What is it that you really need to say? Is this a conversation that might bring up anxiety for you as a parent? What are the core reasons that you may have avoided telling your child about this before? Do you need support in order to plan for the conversation?

Create a safe space
Invite your child for a special one on one outing and take a time out from the chaos that might come with the daily routine. Consider taking a walk around the neighborhood as you talk or find a quiet spot to sit without an audience. A trip to the grocery store may provide for some time alone in the car to talk. Be sure to give yourself enough time so that you do not feel rushed. 

Children and teenagers often fill in the details with their own narrative when we do not provide them some basic understanding of what is happening around them.

Describe your own emotional process 
Sometimes it can be helpful to acknowledge your own experience using basic concepts. As an example, you may say something such as “I have some difficult news to share with you, and it makes me feel sad when I think about this” or “I want to share something important with you that is affecting our family… this makes me feel a little nervous to talk about”.  Being open about your emotional experience allows your child to know that it is safe to share what they are feeling too. One important reminder is that your child is not here to provide you with emotional support. Sharing difficult news often requires parents to process their own feelings first and seek support before they open the conversation with their child. 

Use explanations based on your child’s developmental level
Younger children will often respond best to short conversations with a single mood identified. However, teenagers may want to know more, and they often recognize that a single event may provoke a variety of emotional responses (i.e. sadness mixed with anger, anxiety mixed with excitement, etc.). 

Give them an opportunity to explain how they feel 
Parents may spend so much energy sharing the difficult news that it becomes easy to forget that another key ingredient is to ask your child how they feel. The greatest information is often gained simply by asking open ended questions. What types of thoughts are on your mind? Can you help me to come up with a word that describes how you might feel right now?

Provide support
Process ways to keep the conversation going. Is there someone else that you would like to talk to? Is there a teacher you trust that we could tell what is happening (i.e. a move, a new job, a difficult medical diagnosis, loss of a pet, loss of a family member, etc.)?

Make a plan 
Children often respond well to opportunities that provide closure--writing a letter, completing a craft project or creating a memory box are all examples of ways to make meaning out of a loss. 

While sharing hard news is never easy, these vulnerable moments bring with them opportunities to model effective coping, to acknowledge shared emotional experiences, and to plan for the future moving forward together. 

GenaLynne C. Mooneyham, MD, MS, FAAP, FABPN, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, pediatrician, and adult psychiatrist in the Duke School of Medicine in Durham, NC.



Related Resources

Tips for Talking with and Helping Children and Youth Cope after a Disaster or Traumatic Event--A Guide for Parents, Caregiveers, and Teachers

Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources