How to Tell Your Kids Hard News

When difficult things happen or an illness is detected, many parents struggle with how to share these tragedies or close-to-home traumas with their children. In fact, depending on the age of your child, the task may seem impossible. However, there are a few steps you can take with any child that will make sharing hard news more manageable. Here’s what you can do:

Start where they are.
Before jumping into the speech you prepared, ask your child what they have already heard. This is a great place to start because it allows you to address any specific worries your child may have. It will also help you gauge how much you should share. If your child shows significant concern or has a lot of questions, you will want to share more details than if a child is unphased or oblivious to the events.

Give context and facts.
A child’s imagination can be so active that a vague conversation about a tragedy or trauma can sometimes be more unsettling than the actual facts. Try not to leave too many things up to the imagination, but of course, use discretion for how many and which of the facts you share.

A great way to give context to a tragedy is to help your child tie it to a location. If you are talking about a tragedy your family saw on the news, look at a map together to show where the event happened. Even a tragedy happening far away can feel like it’s in your backyard for a child who has no context for the event. When possible, talk about the infrequency of the tragedy and incorporate a few positive stories to help your child understand the balance of good and bad things that happen.

Be honest.
Many parents make the mistake of thinking they need to hide their own feelings to “be strong” for their child. Whether you’re worried, angered, or saddened, be open about your feelings with your child. You should share these feelings in an age appropriate way but hiding your feelings to “be strong” for your child can be very confusing and even harmful. Your children most likely will have a mess of their own emotions about the hard news, and it is a comfort to know they aren’t alone. Sad feelings aren’t bad. Be honest about your own feelings and give your child space to feel whatever they do.

Take action.
Trying to understand the abstract “badness” in the world can be very overwhelming for a child. To help your child understand and process bad news, identify one main takeaway your child can hold onto and think of an action that can be physically completed.

For example, if there is a story about a house fire on the news, you can share with your child about the importance of having a fire escape plan. You might even practice some fire drills with your family. By doing this, you can turn an abstract tragedy into a concrete action which can help reassure your child.

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