There are children who grow up believing that a parent who abandoned the family has died—or vice versa. And there are grown children who only learn decades after the fact that a mysteriously absent relative was in jail or a psychiatric hospital.
“Protecting” children from the real story is counterproductive: youngsters may imagine all sorts of horrific happenings. Or, especially if they’ve been scolded recently or sensed adults whispering behind their backs, they may conclude that the mysterious “something wrong” was caused by something they did wrong. Children can handle hard facts when these are presented in appropriate ways.
Never Lie About a Problem
It’s one thing to tell a preschooler that “Dad is in the hospital because he’s sick” without specifying the nature of his illness. It’s something else entirely to say he has cancer when he’s actually being treated for drug addiction. No matter how ashamed or worried you may be over a problem, pretending it’s different from what it is will only increase the chances of your child’s concluding that something too terrible to talk about is going on.
Of course, when children ask directly for details, you should always answer truthfully (though not necessarily with all the graphic details).
Offer All the Security You Can
The worst thing about a serious illness, a troubled marriage, or a parent out of work is often the agony of not knowing how or when things will resolve themselves. Be careful when reassuring children that “everything will work out”—especially, don’t promise them that the specific resolution they want will arrive quickly. Listen to them empathetically, and limit your own words to assurances that you’re there for them and that they as well as you are strong enough to get through this.
For extra security, keep to familiar routines as far as possible. And always emphasize that whatever went wrong was not the child’s fault.
Keep Kids Updated About Ongoing Issues
When things do change—for better or worse—share the basic details of what’s new and what’s needed, empathetically but without letting your own emotions run wild. And remember that, even when the news is positive, few people want major new responsibilities sprung on them when stress is already high.
Provide Appropriate Closure
Children have as much right as anyone to say a “face-to-face” goodbye to a loved one who has died. If you have doubts about a sensitive child’s ability to handle a funeral—or if a murkier situation such as parental abandonment is involved—you can still help with closure.
- Ask children directly what they want or don’t want to participate in.
- Have an open conversation about everyone’s sense of loss.
- Allow free rein to anger and tears: they clean out emotional toxins.
- Take some time as a family for a “grieving period”: extra rest, no major decisions.
Note to Teachers
If you suspect a student has problems at home, stay available with a sympathetic ear, but be careful: unless someone is in real danger, excessive “helping” may do more harm than good. Children benefit most from being encouraged to develop their strengths and solve problems themselves.
PREPARING CHILDREN FOR THE REAL WORLD
Everyone encounters times in life that call for special coping skills. Even when all is going well, those who get the most from life are the people who effectively utilize teamwork, critical thinking, and appreciation of their unique individual selves. At Shady Oak Primary, we include these skills with our academic curricula because we believe it’s never too early to learn. To find out more about our approach and how it encourages primary-school children to grow into effective adults, visit our website or contact us with your questions.
Blessings to parents and children of all ages!