Seven years ago, Joanne Poon’s 3-year-old daughter Maeve was diagnosed with stage 2 Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer. Within hours of the diagnosis, little Maeve had to be prepped for major surgery, but she had no idea what was going on.
“I had never spoken about what a surgery was to my little girl before, so she didn’t know what was going on. She kept asking me what was happening and where she was going,” Poon, 42, recalls. “I didn’t know what to say to her, so I just told her she was going to rest a while.”
Topics like disease and divorce to death are subjects we hope we never need to burden our little ones with, but such events do occur in every family. Devastating news is hard for adults to stomach, so for kids, it could feel like it’s the end of their world, especially if your tyke is sensitive by nature.
Parents find it daunting to break tough news because our first instinct is to protect our kiddos from pain. Many also feel ill-equipped to do this. If you’re figuring out how to break news on loss or separation to your little ones, here are seven gentle and effective ways to do so.
Only tell your child what they need to know
Share only the parts you think your child needs to know and can understand, instead of bending the truth to lighten the blow. If you and your spouse are separating, it’s important junior knows that mum and dad will always love her, even though she’ll have two homes.
“The reason for why you are separating doesn’t matter to your child, but If your child asks why, then you can state that you have decided that you will be better parents separate than together,” notes Dr Hana Ra Adams, a counsellor at the German European School Singapore. “Talking to your child about your marriage doesn’t help your child feel secure that both mum and dad will always be around.”
Share only the parts you think your child needs to know and can understand, instead of bending the truth to lighten the blow.
Consider your child’s perspective
Children will naturally will worry when they hear bad news, so it’s important you let your child know that their worries are valid.
If there was an illness that led to a death, assure your child that you are not ill. “Most children will worry that their parent will die of similar reasons, so, it’s important you let them know that you are healthy,” notes Dr Adams.
If the family is moving away, try to normalise any feelings of sadness or fear your child airs to you. Say something like, “It’s okay if you are sad that we are moving away, but you will have mummy and daddy with you and we love you very much”.
You can also change his perspective on things and talk about the potential adventures that are coming up, or the new things you’ll learn together as a family. Closure is also very important when making a healthy transition, so help your mini-me say goodbye to family member and friends in a meaningful way.
Wait until you have the full story
The more information you have as the parent, the better equipped you’ll be to answer questions and help your child feel more secure, Dr Adams points out.
If there’s a death and plans are still being put into place for a funeral or other arrangements, wait until the details have been firmed up before sharing it with your sweetie.
Young children need and want security, so, the more questions you’re able to answer, the more secure your child will feel. Also, if you keep changing the information, it will confuse and unsettle junior.
Click through for four more ways to help your tyke during a tough time…
Choose the right moment
The most important time to tell children bad news is when you are ready to answer their barrage of questions. Obviously, the bad news affects you as well. So, tell your child when you’re ready to communicate effectively with them.
Dr Adams warns, “It is all right to tell your child you’re feeling sad, but having a conversation when you are deep in mourning might confuse your child and also cause him fear.”
If possible, gather the whole family together when you break the news as this shows solidarity and trust. Also, do it when you know you have enough time to answer questions later.
“Perhaps before or after dinner when there is time to reflect,” suggests Dr Adams. But don’t do it right before bedtime as this will be the last thing on junior’s mind before he falls asleep — it might even affect his quality of sleep.
After you’ve broken the news, spend some time snuggling together or just sit calmly together and relax.
“Children need to see that parents can be sad as well.”
Don’t lie to them
Lying just makes things even more confusing and children will likely have more questions than answers. If the family pet has died, but you tell junior it has run away, he might go out to look for it. When he realises he’s unable to find it, this could cause more heartache.
“Be open as much as you can. Let them know how the pet died,” Dr Adams explains. “If the pet was sick, let them know the sickness is what caused your pet to become very, very ill.”
Since toddlers might not understand the concept of death, it’s important to tell them about it in a way that they will. You might be tempted to soften auntie’s death by saying that she “went to sleep”, but a child will not understand that auntie will never wake up from this “sleep”.
Dr Adams warns, “Sometimes, it can have the reverse affect in that a child might be scared to go to sleep because they are worried they won’t wake up the next morning.”
What can you do is relate death to nature. “Since children understand how trees or plants grow and die, you can let your child know that people also grow and as they get older, their bodies will work less effectively and die,” she suggests. “Your family’s religion and beliefs can also influence how and when you talk with your child about death.”
Don’t mask your emotions
“Children need to see that parents can be sad as well,” says Dr Adams. “If grandma died then, of course, mum and dad are sad.” But be mindful of how much you break down or cry. If you just heard the news and it’s difficult for you to process it, it’s most likely not the best time to talk to your child. The calmer you appear, the easier it will be for your child to manage the situation.
Allow time for grief
Grief comes in waves, Dr Adams notes, “You will be sad when there is a death and then there will be healing. But the first major event without that family member will cause sadness and that is a normal reaction.”
Help your child to understand this and let them know they can talk with you whenever they need to. Some children feel comfortable after hearing the news initially, but may have questions later on, so keep the lines of communication open at all times.
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