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How To Explain Difficult Subjects To Children

4 MIN READ • 19th January 2022
Health and Wellbeing by Health and Wellbeing

Whether it’s the current global situation or the death of a grandparent, explaining certain events to children can be tricky. So, just how can we get the balance right between telling the truth and saying too much? H&W asks the experts…

We’d all like to shield our children from every tough situation that life throws at us, but unfortunately that’s not always possible. Upsetting events such as death, divorce and illness are sadly an inevitable part of many of our lives, and whether your child is four or 14, talking to them about it doesn’t necessarily get any easier.

“It can be particularly challenging for parents to talk to their children about tough times because of a fear of causing harm to them, or a feeling of not being in control and not being able to make everything OK,” explains child psychologist Dr Michele McDowell (mefinition.org). “On top of this, parents are usually experiencing painful feelings themselves during hard times which can exasperate the difficulty in communicating to their children.”

Combined together, this can often lead to feelings of anxiety or guilt about the way we are relaying information, or miscommunication itself. But, if you’re tempted to bury your head in the sand about it, it’s important to realise that youngsters are more perceptive than we usually give them credit for. Keeping things from them or not telling the entire truth is therefore not always beneficial.

“Children pick up on non-verbal cues – they may not understand exactly what’s going on, but they can tell if their parents are unhappy or stressed,” says psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, a child development expert and founder of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide (goodplayguide.com). “If they don’t understand why, they may think it’s their fault or they can become worried and their imaginations can go into overdrive and create an issue that is much scarier than the real-life situation.”

Conversation starters

So, just how can we address these situations in a calm and focused manner? It’s important to bear in mind that how you speak to your child will depend on their age and level of development, but there are some key points to remember.

DO tell the truth

“Use clear terms when talking to children,” advises Dr Michele. “For example, if someone has died, say that, rather than they are in a ‘deep sleep’ or ‘have gone’. The less ambiguous the information the easier it will be for a child to understand. This also helps to enhance the trust bond.”

If you have very young children, Dr Amanda adds that it’s important to not overload them with too many details. “As a general rule, the younger the child, the shorter the answer, but it’s important to let the child ask questions if they want more information.”

DON’T give false reassurance

Sadly, things don’t always work out the way we plan – and it’s important to recognise this. “Don’t give your children false reassurance by saying things like ‘everything is going to be OK’ if there’s a chance it may not be,” says Dr Michele. “Instead, talk through their emotions and support them by acknowledging how they may be feeling – reminding them that it’s OK to not be feeling OK.”

DO validate their feelings

Let your children know that it’s acceptable to feel how they do, advises Dr Amanda. “Try to help them find out why they are feeling that way – and talk about things that can help them feel better and make sure they know that none of this is their fault,” she suggests. In this way, you shouldn’t belittle any concerns they have by saying things like ‘don’t be silly’ or ‘what are you worrying about that for?’. “This will push children to bottle up their feelings which can damage their mental health in the longer term,” she adds.

DON’T hide your emotions

“Don’t pretend you’re OK if you’re not,” says Dr Amanda. “This doesn’t mean you should overburden children with adult worries, but you should try to be authentic and explain that you’re struggling with something. Talk to your child about what you’re going to do to feel better.”

“It is healthy for children to see adults express emotions,” Dr Michele adds, saying that if you do cry or get upset in front of them, don’t worry – this can teach youngsters that it is a normal way of showing feelings.

DO encourage children to ask questions

“This can allay their own anxieties and support their understanding of the situation,” says Dr Michele. “It does not matter if, as a parent, you don’t have all the answers, allowing them to feel heard is important for their sense of security.” Remember also that all youngsters are different and will react to events in different ways – so give them the time and space they need to process things. “Irrespective of their age, offering cuddles and hugs is often helpful,” Dr Michele adds.

What to say…

Dr Michele gives some advice for common scenarios…

If someone in the family passes away

Depending on the child’s age, they may not have the emotional literacy to express their feelings. It is helpful for parents to help them put their emotions into words by saying something like: “I am feeling very sad at the moment, I think you are feeling this way too.”

If someone close to them is diagnosed with an illness

Tell them at a similar time to other friends or family so they do not sense that something worrying is happening that they do not know about. Try to keep your explanations as simple as possible. For example: “Grandma is very unwell and needs to go to hospital. She is feeling weak so cannot walk.” Keep them up to date by providing small amounts of information clearly.

If you’re getting divorced

Children often associate divorce with something that is their fault, and many feel they are to blame because one, or both, parents are upset with them. It is very helpful if both parents can jointly communicate that it is not anything to do with them. Explanations about divorce can be successfully compared to a child not getting on well with a friend anymore – this allows them to understand it within a familiar context.

If there are big world issues affecting you

Children usually hear of world events on the news, at school or at home. In these situations, it is likely that they will hear about the fatalities, which can be very worrying for them. It is important for parents to be able to emotionally regulate for their children by modelling a calm response. Set aside time to talk to your children about it, and let them explore what they’ve heard about the issue. Be honest, but also keep your chats age-appropriate. Children like to feel a sense of purpose – so, for example, while coronavirus is still a worry, they could be given the task of washing their hands well.

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