Breaking Bad News to Children
“Can you HELP!” was the simple email request from my funeral director friend.
A young mother had died after complications following what was supposed to be a routine surgical procedure. The grandparents who were looking after the children didn’t know what to do, and had decided not to tell them, delaying what would be an obviously difficult moment.
“Right now we are all just so totally distraught,” they had told the funeral director. “Is there some sort of procedure in informing the children?”
I could identify with them. One of the most difficult things I ever had to do in my life was telling my two sons, who were 9 and 7 years of age at the time, that their mother had died.
Both parents and children need to find ways to communicate effectively when disaster strikes. This will be a 2 part article specifically designed to assist people who have to break bad news to children.
- First, distinguish your own emotions about the news from your feelings about what to tell your kids. Take a few minutes (or hours) yourself to try to adjust to the news. It’s always harder to talk about bad news with others when it’s an overwhelmingly emotional issue for you.
- Be open to your kids’ reactions. Some may cry. Others may get angry. Some may not seem to react at all. Don’t read too much into the child’s initial reaction. For some, it takes a while for the news to sink in.
- Give information according to your child’s age. Younger children will require less “factual” information than older teenagers. After sharing the information, answer any questions the kids may have.
- Reassure the children. When bad things happen, their main issue is “how is this going to affect ME?” What they need to hear most in that moment is that you love them and that you are there for them now and in the future. They’re going to be OK, and they need to be reassured of that. If you’re uncertain how long you can be there for children (such as when you receive a terminal prognosis), make sure they know of other caring, trusted adults who will also be there for them. Children need to know, above all, that they are going to be OK.
- Talk about what the bad news means for them personally. Be as clear as possible about how the bad news will make their life change—or not change. Older kids will want to know more details about this than younger kids.
Guidelines for Telling Children Bad News
1. Wait till you have a Complete Story
Before breaking news to your children, wait until you have as many facts as possible. Children are prone to taking the information you offer and filling in any missing details with their own imaginations. And the imagination often paints a much darker picture than the reality, as difficult as that reality may be. Being able to tell a complete story is the best way to present information. Granted, you don’t always have everything you need to know, and waiting too long to share information can be dangerous as well.
2. Faith and Fibs
When breaking bad news, avoid the urge to invent facts or share things you hope or think are facts. Stick to the story, but tell it in a gentle way. Above all, don’t fabricate the truth. Secrets or fibs can often be worse for children to deal with than the truth. Sometimes we say things in an attempt to “spare the child the grief” which can be hard for most children to swallow. One lady, in order to comfort her daughter who was distraught over the death of her pet cat, told her that, “God must have wanted another cat in heaven.” To which the child replied, “Don’t be silly. What would God want with a dead cat?”
It is far better to explain to your child that the cat (or grandma) was sick and died so that they wouldn’t hurt anymore. We can never “replace” what has been lost, so you might want to wait a bit before introducing a new pet. Otherwise the child might be confused about how she should respond to the new pet and how to grieve for one that has died. Later on, you could introduce the new pet in a completely separate capacity than the old one.
Even clichés about “Grandma going to a better place” can leave the child wondering what was wrong with this place; or what they did to make this place so miserable that grandma felt she’d be better off in another place.
3. Use Age-Appropriate Language
When explaining to a four-year-old that someone has died, you’ll certainly use different phrases and terms than you would with a ten-year-old. Helping a child both understand and process the news is critical. Using terms he/she might not understand and might not question can leave them confused. Use simple terms and clear, concise explanations for children of all ages. Try to avoid additional statements that might give conflicting messages or confusing details to the child.
While every child understands according to their developmental level, which can vary at similar ages, here are a few general age appropriate suggestions:
Children ages birth to 5
- Break bad news to the child in a comfortable place. For example, have them sit on your lap or talk to them on his/her bed. Having their favorite comfort item available (a blanket, a stuffed animal or favorite toy) can also help. Remember, this news is going to be perceived as a “threat” to their very existence, and you need to reassure them that they are going to be OK. Creating a warm, safe environment with the physical expression of holding, hugging, rocking, and reassurances of personal safety counteract the confusion and restore some sense of security.
- Try to be calm—even if the news is upsetting to you. If you’re overly emotional, your child may feel like he or she needs to take care of you instead of having their own reaction.
- Roll with your child’s reactions. Many young children don’t understand what “death” or “divorce” or other big topics are. They may shrug their shoulders and then ask you to play. They’re not being insensitive. Usually they aren’t old enough to understand what the bad news is all about, or what its implications for them might be.
- No matter how hard you try to explain, children around 5 cannot comprehend that someone can be gone forever. Mommy is gone … but will be coming home soon. Her ongoing absence means a loss of security for a younger child.
Children ages 6–9
- Between ages 6-9, children begin to realize that death is irreversible, but assume it cannot happen to anyone in their family. Their concept of death is as something that can be controlled. If we do not make children a part of what is happening, or keep it “a secret”, the child assumes that somehow they are responsible, which often mistaken perception merely adds complications to their mourning.
- Do something special with your child. You can say that when bad things happen, it often helps to do something you enjoy to try to feel better. For example, ask the child what he/she would like to do with you. Maybe they will want to go the playground, play a board game, or go for ice-cream.
- Don’t be surprised if your child tries to blame you or someone else for the bad news. It’s hard for children at this age to understand that sometimes bad things can just happen, and isn’t someone’s “fault.”
- Try to find age-appropriate books on the bad-news topic from your local library. Kids often feel less alone when they read books about other kids going through the same experience.
Children ages 10–11
By ages 10-11, children understand the permanence of death. They are able to grasp some of life’s mysteries, and can think in the abstract. They will carry clearer memories of the experience into the future.
- Be patient with every child’s unique grieving process. Your child may seem fine one day and then a complete wreck the next. Stick with them, reassure them, and answer their questions.
- Since some kids at this age are emotionally volatile, it may be tempting to withhold bad news. It’s important and better to be honest with kids and not to be afraid of their reactions.
- If you’re concerned about how little your child is talking to you about the bad news, talk to other significant adults in your child’s life, such as their teacher, coach, or club leader. Sometimes a child will talk better to another adult, and it helps if everyone knows the same information.
Above all, especially when it comes to children, “One must talk little and listen much.”