9 Tips on Breaking Difficult News to Your Child

By Danielle Smith, RN, nurse blogger at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

Bad NewsAs a parent, one of the most important parts of your relationship with your child is communication and maintaining an open and honest relationship. Our children look to us for guidance and protection. For example, I always like to be the first to break news to my son, especially difficult news. That way I can control the environment and ensure the information provided will be accurate and truthful. This can be a very difficult task, so we should arm ourselves with the tools necessary to do it in the healthiest manner possible for both our little ones and ourselves!

I recently had to break some terrible news to my 8-year-old son. I had to explain to him that someone he knew got hurt and didn’t survive. I also had to tell him that he knew the person who caused the harm. To date, that was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve had with him.

I enlisted the assistance of two experts from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles: Stephanie Marcy, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics, and Cristina Chandri, a Child Life specialist. They offered the following tips.

  1. Consider the age of your child, developmentally and chronologically. Is there a chance your child will hear the news elsewhere? Remember to speak in terms that are age-appropriate, to ensure the child understands.
  2. Your child should be in a calm, familiar and safe environment when it’s time to discuss the difficult news.
  3. Demonstrate for your child that you are in control of your own emotions, but that it is OK to show your feelings if you are upset by the news as well. Validate feelings and let him or her know it is OK to experience difficult feelings when receiving bad news.
  4. Be specific when you speak about the event, to help your child contain anxiety and maintain a sense of safety in the world despite the distressing event.
  5. Be honest, but filter out what is necessary and what is not. You might tell children something more vague, and let them know that if they hear about something they can always ask you questions about it. For example, there is no clear reason to let a 5-year-old know that children his age were shot and killed in school. However, if that 5-year-old loses a grandparent, it might be appropriate to tell him that his grandparent died and process the information with him.
  6. Pause frequently to allow children to ask questions. Let them know that they can ask you anything. Let them know that you might not be able to answer all of their questions, but you will try.
  7. Do not try to reframe something awful as positive to make yourself or your child feel better.
  8. Lead by example and model healthy coping behaviors, such as self-care. Plan something special together as a family or do something community-based (e.g., hosting a lemonade stand to raise money for a special cause).
  9. Realize that your children might feel upset about this later and remind them that they can talk to you about it any time.

Danielle SmithParenting comes with many challenges, and you might be faced with this one someday. Following this advice about sharing difficult news will help your children feel supported and understand the impact the news might have on them.

For information about online resources and more pediatric health care tips from Danielle, visit WeTreatKidsBetter.org.

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