Delivering Difficult News to Young Children

By Dr. Damon Korb, M.D.

When tragedy happens, no matter how big or small, instinctively parents want to protect their young children from the pain of bad news. At the same time, one important parenting job is to prepare our kids for life. We want them to become resilient because bad things happen; favorite toys get lost, pets die, friends move away, parents get divorced, people get sick, and natural disasters occur.

There is a fine line between protection and overprotection, which can be easily crossed when parents are unprepared to deliver difficult news to their children.

Mister Rogers famously said that when tragedies occur, “look for the helpers.” The policeman, fireman, or ambulance drivers that run toward crisis offer hope and hope is what we need during a tragedy. Parents can be important helpers to their grieving children. But, in order to successfully help others, parents need to first make sure to seek support for themselves. Parents should consider how they are affected. Seek help from friends or professionals. Often parents’ emotions are caused by fear of how their child might respond. Sometimes just acknowledging that fear is helpful.

The size of the problem makes a difference in how news should be delivered. Life events such as the death of a pet, the loss of a parent’s job, or a family move are sad, but typical, and warrant empathy and normalization. Deliver the news in a casual and honest way and offer hope. “Dad is going to be in the hospital for a few days, but the doctors aren’t worried, and while he is there, grandma is going to stay with us.”

If the family needs to move to a new location, make the announcement while driving around and looking at cool houses. “Wouldn’t it be neat to live in a house with a front yard like this? You know what, mom got a new job and it means we get to move to a new house in a new city.”

This casual approach emphasizes that things like this happen and when they do, we deal with it. After delivering the news, it can help to participate in a typical event, such as going out to dinner, to emphasize that these events are a part of life.

When a “once in a lifetime” tragedy occurs, such as a divorce, a parent getting cancer, or the death of a relative, even more thought should be given about when, where, and how the news is delivered.

The child should be in a comforting place (but, not his or her bed, because that place should be reserved for pleasant dreams). Taking a walk or visiting a meaningful location can be helpful. If possible, both parents can be present to support the child, and each other, when delivering difficult news.

For young children, be honest and be brief. “Grandma Pearl died last night and mommy and I feel very sad.” Children will respond differently. Some will have questions and others sadness. Just be prepared to support your child however he or she may feel.

Remember a few important rules when delivering difficult messages to young children:

1. Be brief. Make a clear statement and then answer questions.

2. Be prompt. Do not put off the conversation for too long as this will build parental anxiety and, if the child finds out on his or her own, potentially undermine the parental trust.

3. Be prepared to answer questions. It is ok to say “I do not know.”

4. Connect with your child by sharing your feelings of sadness. “I know, mommy is sad too.”

5. Be optimistic and give hope. “This is going to be difficult, but it is going to make us stronger.”

Difficult situations are teachable moments in the life of a soon-to-be resilient child. Parents are the “helpers” that give hope despite tragedy.

Dr. Damon Korb, M.D., Director of The Center for Developing Minds (CDM), is a board-certified behavioral and developmental pediatrician. The Center for Developing Minds is an interdisciplinary pediatric clinic that provides care for children and young adults who struggle at home and at school with behavior issues, learning difficulties, attention problems, social skill deficits, autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays and psychological disorders. For more information about the services available at the Center for Developing Minds, please visit www.devminds.com or call (408) 358–1853.