Unexpected change can be really confusing for kids. Things like illness, divorce, job loss, a shift in finances, moving, and death can bring the whole family into a new and unpredictable reality.
Parents often wonder, “How and what do I share with the kids?” There can be many assumptions about what children can handle and it can feel like one more overwhelming thing to deal with.
Know that no matter how you approach sharing difficult information with your child, you are most likely doing a wonderful job. Trust that you have your child’s best interest at heart and that you intuitively know how to deliver the information. Let’s face it – no one knows your child better than you do.
That being said, if you are looking for a little extra guidance and reassurance, here are a few tips and reminders:
1. Keep it simple: Use clear, accurate language rather than euphemisms. “Passed away” doesn’t make sense to a child but telling them that a loved one’s body “no longer works” opens the door to further conversation. Name the illness you are dealing with and the part of the body it is affecting; explain the arrangements separating parents are making for spending time with their children; talk honestly about the changes your child can expect, right now, from a job loss.
2. Go at your child’s pace: Related to the first tip, you don’t have to know exactly what to say because it is almost impossible to predict what information your child will need. Start with a simple, accurate statement as to what is happening and then wait for your child’s questions. Keeping your responses short and to the point will make lots of space for you to see and hear what your child really needs during this transition.
When it comes down to it, your child wants to know that she is safe and that her needs will continue to be met.
3. Don’t expect a reaction from your child, or indication that he’s understood you: When adults get unexpected news they often experience a strong sense of emotion or even shock. Children are different. Don’t be surprised if your child shows little or no affect, or even “inappropriate” affect, when you share with them what’s going on. This is because they are simply trying to make sense of what you are telling them. They don’t have the life experience and mental maps in their brains yet for what “dead” means, or “cancer” or “divorced.” Even teens, who can explain these terms, often needs adequate time to think through the information before you’ll see any kind of emotional expression. This is why using accurate language is so important. You are actually assisting your child in understanding, for example, that “cancer” means that there are too many bad cells growing in a part of grandma’s body and they are taking energy from the good cells, so she not getting the energy she needs to stay healthy and strong.
4. Let your child see your emotions: Your child may have emotional outbursts or be “bouncing off the walls” in reaction to the intense emotions their adults are feeling and expressing. Your child is letting you know that she is confused by her feelings, those around her, and she hasn’t yet made sense of any of it. This is why it is so important for your child to see you express at least some of what you are feeling paired with a brief explanation to help your child make sense – “Mommy is crying because she feels sad about what just happened. Sometimes people cry when they are sad.” You’ll have to judge how much your child can handle but if you are able to give some words to your emotions your child will probably surprise you with how much she can handle. Also, make sure this about teaching your child about emotions, not permission bad-mouth someone who has done you wrong. This will just create more confusion.
5. Make space for a little less than perfect behavior: Your child is doing a lot of work making sense of the unexpected change. This will leave him with limited reserves to act kind and to be consistent with your family’s behavior norms. This is ok and should be temporary. Rather than moving right to consequences get curious when you see behavior that is a little off. Is your child longing for a bit more connection, or does he need a bit more information? Remember, he is very much at the beginning of developing a vocabulary for talking about emotions. Right now he is using his behavior to show you that he needs help making sense of what he’s feeling. Note – unsafe behavior is never appropriate and should be addressed directly.
Download a handout on what your child’s behavior is trying to tell you here.
6. Play is your child’s way of making sense of what’s going on: Instead of a lot of emotions get ready to see intense play going on. Don’t be surprised if your child plays funeral over and over, or going to the doctor, or getting fired. This is healthy. One caveat – if the play seems to get stuck on a disturbing element that never seems to be resolved, if disturbing elements seem to be escalating, or if your child seems unusually spacey or disorganized, your child might be stuck in a traumatic thought pattern. In these cases, seek the support of a therapist to help your child get unstuck.
7. Teens may need extra time with their friends: This is their version of play. Don’t take your teen’s need for time away as a rejection of you and the support you are offering. Instead, make extra effort to connect when your teen is home (see #8 for some ideas). You are still the primary meaning-maker and safety-provider for your teen, he just also needs to balance his family experience with those of his friends so that he can build a fuller picture of the implications what your family is going through. However, if your teen is also engaging in increased high-risk behaviors, don’t hesitate to seek out additional support.
8. Be even more intentional about connecting time: When things are unsettled your child craves closeness with you. Create lots and lots of space for this to happen. Reduce your commitments to only the most necessary. Put your phone on airplane mode during transitions and times when it’s natural to be drawn together, such as meal times. Take walks together. Sit down on the floor and invite child-led playtime. Go for a drive with your teen and just listen. Play music that is meaningful to your family instead of turning on the tv. Dance and laugh together. Make space for physical closeness as much as possible, such as cuddles at bedtime and eye-contact during extended hellos and goodbyes. All of this communicates to your child that no matter the upset your family is going through, he is safe and protected and that your family has the resilience to manage uncomfortable feelings.
For more on resilience and dealing with big emotions, check out this article.
9. Most importantly, make sure YOUR needs are being met: Whether you like it or not, no matter how impossible it feels, you are the grounding energy and emotional center for your child. You are holding space for a lot of her energy and you need to take good care of your body and your heart. Trust that getting down to basics and abundant connecting time with your child will meet many of your needs. It is also important that you get adequate rest and nutrition. Find a friend (or many) who will listen unconditionally to whatever’s on your mind, whenever you need it. Your children probably don’t need to know the depth of emotions you are experiencing and having a safe space for yourself will empower you to share only what’s in service of your child’s growth.
When it comes down to it, your child wants to know that she is safe and that her needs will continue to be met. Unexpected change brings many layers of complications and unknowns. Keeping the focus on connecting with your child, listening for her needs as they arise, and taking good care of your own needs will give your family all it needs it deepen and grow through this experience.
Feeling overwhelmed with how to start? Consider scheduling a solution session to get clarity and actionable steps.