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Breaking bad news to children

One of the challenges parents face is breaking bad news to their children. For many of us, this is a daunting task we feel inadequate to handle. Whether it’s the death of a child’s goldfish, the family cat or, harder still, a loved family member like Nana – children need help to navigate through the emotions that will occur. The added challenge is that parents may also be facing loss, hurt and pain at the same time.

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I vividly remember the day our 10-year-old daughter’s pet rabbit, Amy, died. Amy was due to have baby bunnies any day. We were excited about that and completely unprepared for her untimely death. She was found dead in her cage with her eight baby bunnies curled up together, not yet fed. What surprised me was how much my emotional response was tied into my daughter’s response. I felt shattered by the loss because I could see how much this sad event had affected her. My tears were for her and her loss – and not really for the rabbit.

We want to be protectors of our children. We tend to want to preserve life’s happy moments and find it difficult to see our children distressed or struggling with strong emotions. While we might see it as our role to make the hurt go away, we can be more helpful in the long run by providing our children with emotional support and a listening ear.

When sharing sad news with our children, our own grief is a good place to start

Children need to know that it is okay to be sad and cry over a loss. It can be helpful to explain to them what it is we are sad about, so that they have a better understanding of what is going on around them. It is important to be honest and use the proper language so that you don’t confuse them, or cause them unnecessary worry. In most situations, using the terms ‘died’ or ‘dead’ – rather than ‘passed away’, ‘gone to sleep’, or ‘for a long holiday’ – helps a child to have a more concrete understanding of what has happened. When we use euphemisms for death, we can create more uncertainty and confusion for our child. Then, allowing our child to ask questions about what has happened can be a chance for them to make sense of what they are experiencing.

Remember that children’s questions are often awkward or inconveniently-timed. Parents can assume that children will ask questions if they have them, but sometimes a child is uncertain about their feelings and doesn’t have the cognitive ability to voice their concerns. They need an invitation from a parent or loved one to talk about the loss, and the support to know that they may feel sad, angry, upset or lonely. What really helps is when someone offers to answer their questions at any time if there is something they are wondering about.

Children grieve differently to adults

But don’t underestimate the impact a death can have on them. When the loss is significant, adults can be alarmed at how nonchalantly children view the news. It is not unusual for a child who has lost a significant person in their lives to also want to know whether they can still have fish and chips for dinner. Children grieve more sporadically than adults and the mistaken view can be that the child is either unaffected by the loss, or too young to comprehend it.

Children may not be able to articulate their feelings and it will often be expressed in their behaviour

Many families notice an increase in wakefulness, bad dreams, tantrums, tearfulness and more explosive behaviour. Some of this is in relation to the changes they are experiencing in the family, the lack of security they might feel and the deep feelings that, at times, overwhelm them. Parents need to keep this in mind when dealing with unpleasant or unusual behaviour – and investigate first before reacting. Often a cuddle and time together is the key to restoring calm and helping a child move on.

Some families who have dealt with loss, whether it is a pet or loved family member, have found it really helpful to ‘set the scene’. One young adult I know remembers how, as a child, Nana was the one who told them when Grandpa died. She sat them on the couch, had her arms around them and told them honestly what had happened. Then she welcomed their talk and questions. It was loving, open, honest and there was a big pause for them to take it in and ask questions. Looking back she realised how even the formality, the seating, the comfort and the openness all helped her view this hard time in her life quite positively.

Other families have found ways to say goodbye that allow for children’s participation and ownership. Suggest to your child that they might like to write a letter or poem that is just between them and their loved one to put on the coffin. A pet might be buried with the special toy it loved, or a blanket it slept on. A memory book can be created that records events, photos and memories. The process of making and reading this kind of book brings relief and healing in steps and stages. Then children may work through the process of saying goodbye by ‘playing funerals’ or pretending a toy has died. It is simply their way of working through the loss and making sense of it. It is often easier for children to project their feelings on inanimate objects than it is to express them. Role play is a good avenue for this expression.

This is new territory for many parents, so it is great to know there are organisations to help. Skylight provides resources and programmes designed to help children, young people and their families through tough times – skylight.org.nz To find out about peer support groups for young people, visit seasons.org.nz.

If you have bad news to tell your children, how do you break it to them gently?

Here are some tips from the Skylight staff –

  • Never avoid an issue for so long that your kids might hear bad news from somebody else first.
  • Anticipate that there may be awkward questions and be ready to answer them if you can. Perhaps think these answers through with someone else first.
  • Choose a quiet place where they’ll feel safe and you won’t be interrupted.
  • Perhaps have favourite things nearby, especially for younger children. For example, comfort toys.
  • Be honest with them. Stick to making statements you believe yourself.
  • Keep explanations simple. If you don’t know or cannot explain something, admit that you don’t know.
  • Children do best with bite-sized information they can chew on.
  • Don’t talk for too long. Tell the children what they need to know, give them a chance to ask a few questions.
  • Anticipate that they might want to then ask unrelated questions or begin a play or distraction activity. Do not assume they haven’t heard you or are not reacting.
  • Don’t push it. Having told the children whatever it is you need to tell them, wait for them to come back to you when they are ready to hear more or just look out for those little moments when it seems right to chat about it together again.
  • Look for kids’ books that cover similar issues to those you need to raise. Ask a librarian or bookshop staff for help.


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About Author

Jenny Hale

Jenny has a primary teaching background and spent three years as a parent educator. Jenny runs workshops at the Parenting Place centre in Auckland and at Hot Tips events around New Zealand. She is the senior Family Coach, working with existing clients as well as training new coaches. Jenny writes regularly and makes appearances on TV 3's The Café. Jenny has two adult children and is a grandmother of two young children.

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