It’s natural to want to protect your child, and this is especially true when a traumatic event occurs. This event can be something personal, like the death of a beloved pet, cherished grandparent or relative, or it can be scary news coverage. In either case, it can be challenging to know how to respond, so this post will offer tips to consider.
Parents should share difficult news with children directly to ensure that the information provided is truthful and accurate. Children look to their parents for protection and guidance in difficult situations, and so maintaining an open and honest relationship is crucial.
Tips provided by a licensed mental health professional and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles include:
- Consider the age of the child when deciding what to share and how. Whatever you ultimately decide to share, do so in an age-appropriate way. Share the bad news in an environment that’s calm and familiar, doing all you can to help the child feel safe.
- Let your child know that it’s normal to have a mix of confusing emotions when hearing about a traumatic event.
- Be honest but carefully discern how much information younger children need. The goal is to be truthful while helping your child to manage anxiety about the event.
- Pause often to let your child ask questions and answer what you can.
- Be a role model when processing your own emotions about the event. Here are ways that adults can handle their emotional response after a challenging experience.
- Find ways to keep busy as a family, looking for opportunities to make a positive contribution. For example, you could have a lemonade stand and send the proceeds to a charity.
The Duke Department of Pediatrics offers more suggestions, including taking your child out for a special one-on-one experience. This can be as simple as going for a walk together and finding a quiet spot to talk. It can be helpful to share your own emotional response, although it’s important to remember that you are there to offer your child support, rather than receiving emotional support from your child.
You may find that your child will want to talk about his or her own feelings after an especially stressful event, and open-ended questions are often best for soliciting information. It can be as simple as “Can you help me to come up with a word that describes how you might feel right now?” Note that, while some children cope with stressful events more easily when they can express their emotions, others can feel sad and not know how to express those feelings.
When More Help is Needed
If after you reassure your child, he or she is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic event, you may want to schedule a family meeting with a mental health professional. The therapist can help you and your child to create a strategy to deal with the difficult emotions and find ways to move forward in a healthy manner.
There are plenty of resources to use, too, including the following:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources
- Our House Grief Support Center
- Explaining the News to Our Kids
Throughout the grieving process after the stressful event, continue to answer questions and to reassure your child that he or she is loved and protected.