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How to Talk to a Child About Family Problems

Advice for Women Raising Their Grandchildren

People often ask me how to tell a child hard news: their loved one has passed away, a parent got in trouble with the law, someone has a drinking problem, and the list goes on… The answer is difficult and really dependent on your child and your family. I am a firm believer that it is not healthy to keep secrets for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, it teaches our children to keep secrets, which, as a child psychologist, I find very scary. Children who are taught to keep secrets are the least likely to tell when someone is hurting them. Given this, we must exert grit by setting a strong example for our children about telling the truth and being honest, even when it is scary for us.

Here are 6 guidelines to follow when talking to children about family problems:

1. Although I do believe in being open and honest, I also believe we need to have some discernment.
We do not need to tell our children excessive details or the gore of a situation. What we say must be age-appropriate and child-appropriate. You give your child the details that he or she can handle in a way that your child understands. When my brother-in-law committed suicide recently, I consulted friends and colleagues as this was new to me. After some thought and prayer, we told my 4-year-old that her uncle got sick really fast and the doctors could not get to him fast enough, and he went to heaven. When she gets older, I will tell her how he died. When it came to telling my 14-year-old cousin who also knew him, we said that he committed suicide and also explained what the triggers were. She is mature and old enough to process more details of the truth.

2. In addition to being truthful, it is crucial that we are attentive to our children.
Take notice of any changes in their behavior or emotional reactions and talk to them about it. What happened there? Or maybe when they are calm and not thinking about the behavior, ask, “Have you been thinking about grandma dying?” Or, “What is on your mind?”

3. It is also important to be appropriate when sharing your emotions.
When my mother died, my daughter saw me cry. She did not see me hysterical, because that would have scared her. But she saw me sad. She would say to me, “Mommy, is your heart sad because grandma is in heaven?” And I would say yes. This would open the door for her to talk about her feelings, which she did and still does almost two years later.

4. When your child opens up, make it a point to actively listen and validate his or her thoughts and feelings.
This is so important. Sometimes children talk in the car or while you are making dinner or right before bed (all the times that you might be distracted). Stop what you are doing and listen to them. Sit down and talk about it, no matter how inconvenient. They need you, and they need you now.

5. It is imperative that children know that whatever the event is, it is not their fault.
This is a must. I have worked with many people who have lost someone in an accident as a child, and there is this fear that somehow they caused it. It stems from magical thinking, which is part of normal child development during ages two-seven years. Children during this stage believe their thoughts can influence the world. Given this, it is important that our children know that the event is not their fault. For example, “Mom and dad are divorcing because we cannot get along, not because of anything you do, and we want to be the best parents we can be, which we will be able to be living in two different homes.”

6. Lastly, try to create whatever normalcy you can for them.
This is a big one. I often see parents become very lax with their children during a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or a tragedy in a family. They feel bad that their children are grieving and want to offer them grace over everything. This actually causes children more anxiety about the loss or change. Children need to feel that although this really bad thing happened, I will be ok. The best way to send that message is to keep life as normal as possible for them with everyday things such as their routine, discipline, expectations for them and the like. In doing this, you offer them the security they need to work through their feelings and emotions around this difficult event in your family.

It isn’t easy talking to our children about hard situations. However, if we are truthful and offer empathy towards them while still maintaining their normal life, then we are teaching them invaluable lessons that can be used when they will have to do the same for their children one day.

You will like this episode of our podcast Is it Time for Counseling? A Therapist Helps You Decide (with Dr. Zoe Shaw) – 004

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Dr. Christina is a licensed psychologist in a private practice who mostly specializes in children's issues as well as family law. She’s a Midwestern native, wife, and mom of two living in Florida who travels north often to enjoy the beauty of the seasons.

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