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How to break bad news to kids

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Life is full of ups and downs. As much as we would like to, it is impossible to shield children from the darker, more painful times that we all experience. Terminal illness, death and divorce are extremely traumatic, especially for children.

Even changes on a smaller scale, that you might not consider “bad news” – the arrival of a new sibling, moving to a new city or home which involves your child having to say goodbye to old friends and making new ones; a bread-winning parent becoming unemployed, a parent getting remarried, or the death of a pet – can be very upsetting for children.

Here are some things to keep in mind when breaking such news to children.

Be appropriately honest 
Avoid the urge to lie or sugar-coat. Telling your child that grandmother has “gone away” when she has died confuses them and can destroy the trust they have in you. However, in some cases, it is prudent to omit certain details.

If, for example, you are getting a divorce because of adultery, you can let your child know that mummy and daddy will not be living together anymore, but there is no need to explain the circumstances that led to the separation. You can tell them more when they are older.

In an article in The Mirror, Crissy Duff from parenting website Netmums says: “Don’t exclude them [children] from the grieving process – but at the same time be careful to protect them from the harsher technical details.”

Steady yourself
It is okay to show emotions when bearing bad news. But do not become so overwhelmed with grief that your child becomes afraid for your well-being. Children need to know that they are in the care of an adult who is emotionally stable and are able to look after them even under difficult circumstances. Mrs Piyali Chakrabarti, a clinical psychologist in private practice, offers some tips: use a gentle tone and manner, and be careful not to be too rushed or robotic in your delivery.

Prepare what you will say, and when
Write down what you will say before you speak to them. Pick an appropriate time, preferably when they have completed their activities or schoolwork and are in a comfortable place. If possible, work as a team and deliver the news together with your spouse or the child’s older siblings. This way everyone transmits the same message, and presents a united front as a family.

Give information according to age, and explain how the news might affect them
Younger kids require less explanation than older children, so keep this in mind when you break the news. Learn specific tips for breaking bad news to children of different age groups at ParentFurther.com. After sharing the news, let them know how the changes will affect their lives.

Listen and reassure
Give your child time to respond. Encourage them to ask questions and share how they feel. Let them cry or get angry if they need to. Mrs Chakrabarti says: “Before you deliver the news, put yourself in your child’s place and imagine how you would best receive unexpected bad news.” Mental health counsellor Neven Lee Gibbs says: “The most important thing to impart to a child is ‘We'll get through this’.”

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