There was a time when young children were routinely “protected” from hard facts involving their families. If Uncle Todd was in jail for armed robbery, parents invented other reasons why he didn’t visit anymore. If Cousin Barbara’s new baby had a severe disability, children might be told it was born dead. Often, children weren’t even allowed to attend their own parents’ or grandparents’ funerals.
General opinion today is that such sheltering of children did more harm than good. Kids can sense when you’re upset or holding something back. Where they got no reliable information, their imaginations were capable of generating scenarios even worse than the reality. In some cases, their faith in adults was permanently undermined, or they grew up chronically anxious and depressed.
That’s not to say that pre-tweens have to hear—or can handle—all the gory details if someone’s been murdered. If your family is facing a hard reality, consider the following when deciding how to break the news to your children.
1. Will a familiar face disappear from your lives, temporarily or permanently? You’re only fooling yourself if you think the kids will accept a simple “he’s been sick” without wanting more details, or that they’ll forget a missing family member’s existence if you evade the question long enough. Better the children should know Uncle Todd got in trouble with the law than be left wondering what they did wrong that he doesn’t love them anymore.
2. Do involved extended-family members want to stay in touch, and/or make up for something they did wrong? They may prefer to give your children the details themselves, in which case you’re free to say, “She’s had problems, but she’ll explain it to you when we visit next month.” Unless you have real reason to believe someone is dangerous to be around, don’t completely shun them no matter what they did. “Nothing is unforgivable” is a lesson no child or family should be deprived of: remember that as your children grow older, you want them to feel safe coming to you with their struggles.
3. Is it really anything to be ashamed of? Physical and mental disabilities are no one’s fault, and it’s about time society lost the idea that being “imperfect” is shameful. Children deserve to know what a relative is struggling with and how they’re being treated.
Other rules for approaching sensitive topics:
Never lie outright. Children are almost certain to learn the truth eventually, and resorting to blatant untruth under any circumstances makes it difficult for the other party to trust anything you say from then on.
Start with the basics—“I have sad news; Harry has died.” “Leigh has a mistake to make up, and can’t see anyone for a while.” Ease into harder facts from there, depending on your children’s sensitivities and the questions they ask.
Avoid saying anything that might leave the kids thinking something awful will soon happen to them (or to you). Our overprotective ancestors were right about one thing: children deserve to feel safe.
However, a sense of security doesn’t come from pretending hard realities don’t exist. It comes from being surrounded by people you can trust.
And who aren’t afraid to trust you with hard facts.