Talking With Kids About Difficult News

DECEMBER 14, 2020

By Tom Andre

I want my son to spend summers swinging from a rope into a lake and biking around the neighborhood with his friends. I want him to have weekends full of sports and picnics and playdates. I want our evenings to include family time of conversation and laughter as we sit around the dinner table.

Of course I want to hand him all the tools he needs in order to "reach his full potential." I want him to feel confident and secure in his interactions. I want him to make the right kinds of mistakes - like breaking an arm falling out of a tree that was just a little bit too tall for his admirable ambitions - where he learns a lesson and has a good story, but no permanent damage.

We all have our visions of what a perfect childhood looks like, and it is almost always a romanticized golden age unblemished by the outside world.

It's also not the way the world works, and we all know it. Both traditional psychology and Disney endings have popularized the idea we will inevitably mess up our children if we give them anything less than a perfect childhood. That's false. Plenty of people with traditionally imperfect childhoods end up with deeply satisfying lives. Plenty of people with "perfect" childhoods run into big problems later on.

In Gdansk, Poland there is a World War II museum that does an excellent job of illustrating the horrors of war to children. In the children's section, visitors pass three times through the same family dining and living room: the first time is at the beginning of the war, where food is plentiful, the newspapers are delivered and tell the truth, and life looks "normal." The second time, the room is the same, but the small luxuries are missing or replaced with something simpler. In the final version of the room, towards the end of the war, one of the walls has been destroyed and the room is stripped nearly bare. The message - war is terrible - is clear, but the children have been spared the gory details that adults so often seek out (if you don't believe me just ask Stephen King or Wes Craven).

We do not have to share the worst of everything with children. Instead, try talking about the effects of the bad things - especially if other kids are affected - and invite your child to reflect on how her own experience may be similar or different. Then - and here is the most important part - ask her opinion about those effects. If she is old enough to think about right and wrong, then she is old enough to tell you what she thinks. Is it fair or unfair that some kids have more than others, and why? Is it good or bad that some parents work longer hours than others? And so on.

We may find that instead of tiptoeing around what to say and what not to say, you end up having a rich conversation about what your child values in this world.

By Tom Andre

‚ÄčI am a licensed marriage and family therapist working in El Segundo and Century City (Los Angeles), California. I have experience working with a broad range of problems, and I have a special interest in the lifelong questions about identity, meaning and purpose. Additional areas of interest and experience include grief and loss, parenthood and fertility, and trauma.