Talking to kids about death, loss, and hard news is incredibly challenging to navigate and can feel really overwhelming. As adults, these can be difficult concepts for us to understand and process even without having to communicate to children in a way they understand. We often hear things like:
“What do I share?”
“How honest should I be?”
“If I tell them they will just worry more.”
“What if they ask something I don’t know how to answer?”
These questions are all SO valid. This is hard. It might feel really scary to share hard information with kids. It might feel tempting to keep things from them to protect them. What happens though, is that kids sense when things feel different; when there is something going on. When we leave kids in the dark, they might make up their own narrative to explain what's going on. Often times, these narratives are scarier than the reality, or leave a child alone with big feelings and no explanation. When we leave kids alone with big feelings and no explanation, they often start blaming themselves.
1. REGULATE YOURSELF. Before we can help kids process their emotions and help them understand what is happening, we need to check in with ourselves first. This is so important— we need to ensure that we are providing ourselves with the space and time to regulate our own emotions about the loss. Kids take their cues from us. If we are calm and secure, they can be too. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of your ability to cope.
2. USE A CALM AND EVEN TONE OF VOICE. How we say things is as important as what we say. Be mindful that your voice is calm and even. Try to find a quiet space, free from any distraction.
3. USE CLEAR AND SIMPLE WORDS. Start the conversation by using a statement that will prepare them for about what is to follow. For example: "I have some sad (hard, difficult) news I want to share with you”. When talking about death, avoid euphemisms. Kids cannot always extrapolate in the way that adults can and being direct avoids misunderstanding. Give the basics and then wait for questions.
4. PAUSE TO ALLOW FOR PROCESSING. During the conversation, remember that silence is normal and OKAY! It is important to allow kids time to process what they're hearing. Remember, just like with adults, everyone processes grief differently. Encourage questions and validate that it's okay to feel whatever they may be feeling. For example, " I know this is really hard to understand. Some kids feel sad. Some feel angry. Some feel confused. It’s okay to feel however it is you’re feeling. No feelings are wrong or bad. All feelings make sense. It’s also okay to not want to talk about this. If you have any questions or want to talk more about this, I am always to here to listen. I will bring this up again and you can let me know if you are ready.” Kids may not have questions in that moment, and may change the subject. Reiterating that you are available whenever they want/are ready to talk provides kids with a sense of safety and control over what they want to share.
5. ANSWER QUESTIONS HONESTLY AND DIRECTLY. Only answer the questions they ask. As adults, our own anxiety may cause us to give more information than is needed. Follow your child's lead. The goal is to create a safe space for them to ask what they are thinking about. They may need time. This is okay. It's also okay to say you don't know. Tell them that you will work on finding out the answer.
6. NORMALIZE AND VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS. Tell them that you are sad about this news too. It is okay and important that you model for children that we are all human and are allowed to feel vulnerable. Remind them that all feelings are okay and safe to feel.
7. REMIND THEM IT'S NOT THEIR FAULT. It is very important that kids know that whatever has happened is not their fault! Reiterate that they did not cause this and could not have done anything differently to prevent it from happening. This is particularly important when discussing death, or parents' separation/divorce. If discussing a separation, for example, you might say, "We love you so much and sometimes parents need to make hard choices that kids don't like, but our job is to do what we think will be best for our family. Nothing you did or didn't do caused this. This is not your fault."
8. PREPARE YOUR CHILD FOR WHAT COMES NEXT. Talk to them about next steps so that they are prepared. This helps kids feel secure during times of change. Remind them that no matter what, you will care for them and love them.
9. USE BOOKS, VIDEOS AND PLAY TO OPEN DIALOGUE. Following the conversation, it is vital to play, play, play! Play is a universal language for kids! Allow them to explore and activate their creativity as a means of expressing themselves and process what they are feeling. Kids tell us more through play and arts than through having an open dialogue.
When you've had difficult conversations about death or loss with kids, what have you found to be helpful? What has been difficult? What questions do you have? Leave a comment and we'll share our thoughts!
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