If only life were like the fairy tales we read to our children when they’re little: bloodless, maybe a bit tense, but always with a happy ending.
Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. From pandemics to death to divorce to mass shootings, reality often intrudes on the idyllic existence we wish for our children.
So what do you say when you have to deliver bad news?
Voice of experience
Popular children’s book author and illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund, who recently died at the age of 95, had some suggestions for parents. She herself lost her sister when she was six years old, and her father was killed in an auto accident when she was just 10.
“Children are very concerned with life and can cope with anything that is true,” she once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think any life experience should be discussed with a child, at a certain level. . . . But while expressing realism we must also express truth.”
What the experts say
The American Psychological Association (APA) concurs. “Instead of shielding children from the dangers, violence, or tragedies around us, adults should talk to kids about what is happening,” the organization recommends.
If something bad happens, they recommend that parents bring up the topic with their children, who almost certainly know about it but are likely confused and even anxious.
- Plan out in advance what you want to say.
- Find a quiet moment with no distractions.
- Share your feelings with your child, reassuring them that it’s okay to feel bad or upset, but that you—and they—can handle these feelings.
- Tell the truth at a level they can understand, but leave out any graphic details.
- It’s okay to say “I don’t know” if the child asks a question with no ready answer (such as, “Why did the bad people do this?”)
- Above all, reassure them that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe, that you will be available to answer any questions about this or any other topic, and that you love them.
Finally, if you feel the situation is more than you can handle, or if your child shows persistent signs of stress or agitation, be sure to consult a licensed mental health professional to help you proceed.