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Communicating with Children: Painful News and Secrets

Communicating with Children: Painful News and Secrets

No family system is perfect, and often times, families have secrets or information that kept within the family system.  However, often times keeping secrets is not in the best interest of the child. It is important to understand when both you and the child may be ready to know information- by assessing readiness to disclose secrets. Examples for kinship families in particular may be why the child is not living with their parents or what happened to their parent.

It can be difficult to maintain secrets with children. They will often sense something is wrong, or feel that a secret is their fault. They may hear about the matter from someone besides you, and that can feel bad for all parties involved.

Here are some tips for preparing to disclose painful news or secrets:

1. Set the Stage – Prepare for a difficult conversation by first determining:

  • Where the child might feel most comfortable- is there a location that is best for serious conversations?
  • When the best time to sit and talk -do you have a weekly “chat time” set up?

2. Assess the Age– Understand what the child is capable of understanding to prepare for the discussion:

  • Age 0-2: Very young children don’t understand illness or future events. They are concerned about what is happening to them in the moment. Separation from parents is a major cause for anxiety.
  • Age 2-7: Children believe the world revolves around them- so they will tend to think they are the cause or to blame of problems in the family system. Give simple explanations. Expect the same questions and concerns to come up over and over. Children this age need time and repeated reassurance.
  • Age 8-12: Children are able to understand relationships between events (cause/effect). Death is a worry, although they¬† may not tell anyone. Honesty is important. Keep explanations simpler but allow the child to voice their concerns and anxieties and work together to address them.
  • Age 12+: Children can now understand complex relationships between events and they can think about things that they have not experienced. Details become more important as they piece together their world view. Allow time for regular conversation- be a part of their process.

3. Prepare for the Reaction: It is common for children to act out in some way, perhaps by misbehaving, or by withdrawing, when the child receives painful news. Delayed reactions are also common. Allow time for children to process news, pay attention to any changes in behavior or signs of depression, and encourage regular communication and questions.

Communicating with children is a ongoing process. Make it a part of your schedule to make difficult conversations easier.

Source: Empowering Grandparents Raising Grandchildren


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