A family member gets ill, a loved one passes away, parents divorce. All of these issues are challenging. And when there are children in the family who are affected by these serious circumstances, it can be extra difficult to know how, when, where and what to tell them.
How much information do they need? Is there such a thing as giving them too much information? What are they picking up from the words and emotions of the adults around them? These are all good questions to be thinking about when you are communicating big and scary information to children. Below are some dos and don’ts for helping yourself and your children when serious situations arise in your family.
Before you say or do anything at all, slow yourself down. Even if you only have a moment to take one deep breath, do it. Taking the time to slow yourself down in the midst of a challenging situation is critical. Composing yourself, even if it is just a little bit, can be the difference between your children thinking that they are in serious danger and understanding that this is a serious situation. Letting them know, both with your words and your emotions, that “this is a serious situation and right now we are safe” is invaluable.
Before you communicate with children, get clear on how you are feeling. Children are finely tuned into the emotional states of their parents. If are you saying one thing, but feeling something else, they know. When they feel this incongruence, it can evoke anxiety. And in the midst of talking about family challenges, there’s no need to add anxiety to the situation. Taking the time to honestly acknowledge how you are feeling is important. Your growing people can handle you having feelings. What’s harder for them to deal with is when they sense you feeling upset and hear you saying, “Everything is fine.” Be honest--it is an emotionally safer way to proceed.
Take the time to connect eye-to-eye, skin-to-skin and heart-to-heart before you share big news. Do your best to create an environment that feels safe to both of you--and make sure you have the time and space to answer their questions.
When you are communicating with your children, do your best to be honest. Tell them clearly what is happening and then wait for questions. If a question is asked that you can answer, keep the answer short and sweet. Only answer the question being asked. If a question is asked that you can’t answer, just say, “I don’t have an answer to that. I’m sorry. If I figure it out, I will let you know.”
You don’t have to give them all of the details of what’s happening, but do your best to keep them informed, especially if the adults are feeling lots of big emotions. For example, you might look your child in the eye and say, “Wow, we are really going through something. This is different isn’t it? Right now, we are figuring stuff out. And I promise we are safe.”
Keep it short and sweet, but do be vocal about what is going on. And name your feelings regularly. For example, “Sweetheart, I’m having a sad day, but it’s not about you. I’m going to take care of myself, and we are safe.”
Children are very aware of what is going on around them. And they are extra tuned in when they sense that something is serious. If you do not want them to hear about a situation, don’t talk about it around them. Even if you are whispering or talking quietly, assume they are hearing what is being said.
In the midst of serious situations, remember that it is imperative to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then help the children. They know when you are going through something big. The best way to help your children during this time is to remember to take care of yourself so that when you are with them, you are relatively present and available. That doesn’t mean happy and cheery all the time, but it does mean tuned into yourself, no matter what you are feeling. When you are out of touch with yourself and under-resourced, you are out of touch with the people around you. Being well-resourced and working diligently to fill your cup a little bit every day is the best thing you can do for your children in the midst of these circumstances.
It sounds cliche, but it really does take a village. If you are too overwhelmed by your situation, call upon family and friends who can support you and your children during this time. Be sure to have some good friends, babysitters and teachers in your children’s lives so when you are not quite up for it, they have people who can give them positive, non-stressed care and love. Let people lighten the load and fuel you with their energy.
It is easy as a parent, especially when you are stressed, to obsess about what’s going to happen down the road. Stop! Be here now. Stay connected to this moment. Do whatever it takes to stay present. Even if you are flooded with negative emotions, do your best to feel what you feel without the story. The story, especially the “what ifs” that evoke fear and worry, are useless. They perpetuate the negative feelings and that is nothing you or your children need during this time. Of course, you are going to feel sad, scared and angry. All of these feelings are normal. And when you feel it, feel it. Just sit and say over and over again, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared, right now I’m feeling scared.” Being in the moment is what your kids want from you more than anything--even when times are tough.
No matter what, don’t forget that your children are strong people who are very resilient and will weather what is happening. Even tragedies can be overcome when there is enough love, support, honesty, connection and empathy. You may not realize it in the moment, but you will all get through this, and you will all thrive on the other side.
After slowing yourself down, getting clear on how you are feeling and connecting with your children, communicate. Let them know what’s going on and keep them posted as things unfold. Reach out for support from loved ones and individuals who are important to your children. And know that this too shall pass, and you and your children will get through this challenging time of life together.
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