Mental health: Giving children bad news

It is not easy breaking bad news to a young child. Parents often ask for advice as to the best way to do it, and wonder what they should expect in terms of a reaction from the child.

If we are telling a child about a death, or impending family separation, it is important to remember that the child may have difficulty grasping what this information means. It can be extremely difficult to comprehend that someone we love will not be with us anymore. Or that mom and dad will not be living together in the same house.

We have a tendency to want to sit down and explain the situation, because it is important. But children have short attention spans, and they are shorter if what we are saying makes little sense to them. They also pick up on our sadness or anxiety, and that makes them uncomfortable, so they would rather just go and play. Consequently, it works better to give children information in small doses, and to allow them to go off and have a break if they need to.

Sometimes it is puzzling, because children may seem to have no reaction at all. This only means that at this point, they have not been able to process the information, or that they are in a type of shock or denial. It is best to take a relaxed approach, realizing that it will take time for the child to really understand what is being said. They may only receive the message that dad is going away and forget the part about his still being an important part of their lives. It is very difficult for them to visualize a situation that seems incomprehensible.

Think of it as you might if you were teaching someone a new language. At first you don’t expect them to understand everything, but as you go over things, gradually they pick up more and more. They may ask you to repeat things again and again.

It should go without saying that information about separation or divorce be handled without making either parent the bad guy. Even if only one wants the separation, it is best if parents sit down with the children together, and tell them this is what mom and dad have decided. This can be so hard if there has been infidelity, or if one is devastated by the decision. This is one of those times when we must put the needs of children ahead of our own.

Be careful when speaking to friends or family about your feelings when children are around. They are listening, even if playing on their devices.

Remember also, that the child may be experiencing a wide range of feelings but may not be able to express them verbally.

We might find some regression in the areas of toilet training and language development in younger children, as well as changes in eating or sleeping patterns. The most important message you can give to your child is that you will be there for him, and although things may be difficult, that everything will be all right. This might be hard to do in the midst of crisis, but we must reach down to find that inner well of strength. The little ones depend on us for that.

Gwen Randall-Young is an Alberta author and award-winning psychologist.