While you would rather only ever have good news and wonderful events to share with your child, unfortunately that’s not possible. Sometimes you’ll have to share upsetting information as well. Whether it’s the loss of a family pet, the death of a grandparent, an upcoming divorce, or a family move, it can be hard to know how to break difficult news to your child.
Fortunately, the right techniques, some preparation on your part, and love and empathy can all help make a difficult conversation easier for both you and your child—and can even make a hard situation easier to get through.
Take Care of Your Emotional Health First
As a parent, it’s always tempting to put the feelings of your child above your own. But it’s important to realise that caring for yourself is also good for your child; they’ll feel more safe and secure if you are composed and emotionally together during a hard conversation.
If the bad news is affecting you, take care of your emotional needs however you need to before you speak with your child. Cry, scream into a pillow, be comforted by your partner, or vent to a close friend. Once you’ve done that, it’s far easier to be clear-headed—which is vital to being able to have a clear conversation with your child.
It’s important to remember though that being composed doesn’t mean being emotional and robotic. It can even be helpful to explain to your child that you’re having an emotional response and use that as an example that it’s okay for them to feel sad, angry, or confused; just be sure you aren’t venting to your children.
Allow Your Child to Ask Questions
While you may be eager to get away from a dark or difficult topic, be sure to let you child ask any questions they need in order to feel comfortable. Don’t dismiss any questions as unimportant or annoying, and make sure your child has your full attention.
Keep in mind your child may have questions long after the initial conversation is open. Try to be emotionally prepared for them to bring up the topic and attempt to answer anything they ask. If it’s difficult to form a response to their question, you may need to be ready to research the topic.
Depending on the subject and your child’s age, they may even want to research the topic together. You can sit with them while you go through books, browse websites, or watch videos about the topic, whether it’s researching a new town you’re moving to or looking up photos of families that stayed close after a divorce.
Only Give Them Relevant Details
It’s very important to not hide big situations from your child, even if they’re unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean that you have to share every aspect of the situation with them. Try to keep what you share relevant to what actually impacts your child’s life.
For instance, if you and your partner are getting a divorce, they likely don’t need to know the source of your fights. If your family dog has passed away, they don’t need a rundown of every symptom or injury they experienced.
Plus, overloading a child with too many details can make it harder from them to process information. Be mindful of what they can handle—especially considering their age and development. A toddler, for instance, may only need the most basic detail while an older child may require more context.
Keep Their Life as Normal as Possible
Children absolutely thrive on routines. When there’s a big change in their life (especially a negative one), it’s even more important to keep as much of their life predictable, steady, and secure as possible.
Within reason, do your best to stick to standard bedtimes, school or daycare routines, playdates, and fun activities. If the difficult situation involves major necessary changes (such as temporarily leaving school or spending time away from the family home), try to bring as much of your child’s “normal” life into their new one as possible.
When you speak with your child about the hard circumstance, be sure to also let them know what in their life will remain normal. This can help your child feel as grounded as possible right from the beginning, and may help ease some fears about how the bad news will impact their own day-to-day life.
Reassure Your Child That You Love Them
This is probably the single, most important thing you can do when delivering hard news to your child. Children look to their parents for love, emotional support, understanding, and safety—and they need to know they’ll still have all of those things.
This is also a good chance to let your child know what things will stay the same. If there’s a divorce coming, they should be told that both parents still love them and will be there for them (and if one parent won’t be, be extra-reassuring of your own stability). If they’ll be moving, explain to them that they can still keep their toys.
Make it clear to your child that they are loved and that they won’t have to go through any of these unpleasant situations alone. This can be a chance to bond even more deeply as a family and make it clear to your child that loves survives in both good and bad times.
As much as you long to protect your child from difficult things in life, such as: changes, bad news, or sad situations, it’s impossible to shield them from everything. Thankfully, it’s entirely possible to help your child face any difficult time with love, support, and understanding.
While telling your children about challenging life circumstances can seem overwhelming, with a bit of prep work and a strong sense of empathy, you can help your child face any situation—and possibly even bring your family closer together in the process.