Talking to Children about Divorce and Death

How should you talk to your children about marital conflict, separation, divorce, serious illness in the family, abuse, or violence?

Most people take one of two extremes.

Keeping Secrets

Some parents keep everything secret and pretend that nothing is going on. The problem about keeping secrets is that children usually know if something’s wrong. Kids are generally very intuitive. So if they sense that there is something tand hey are not being told they may exaggerate the magnitude of the problem and internalize the family anxiety, fear, and worry. In the future, internalizing anxiety becomes the child’s way of responding to problems.

Excessive Openness or Detail

The other extreme that people sometimes take is being very open about their emotions, either confiding inappropriate fears and details about the problem or fighting out in the open. If the parent is too open or is losing control, the child then feels a responsibility for keeping the parent from losing it. This is an unfair responsibility to burden the child with.

Thus, it’s important not to confide in your child the depth of your fears and anger and all the details of your problems. Otherwise, the child will feel obliged to fix the problem, which will inevitably create problems for the child.

While it’s good to be aware of the depth of your own emotions and to feel them, it is not beneficial to unleash them in front of a child. Otherwise it becomes the job of the child to contain the emotions, which will result in the child fearing emotions as always being something that go out of control. This is a sure way for the child to lose his or her own childhood rapidly.

Happy Medium

How do you strike that happy medium between containing and expressing anxiety to a child?

You can be open to some degree but without inundating the child with unnecessary detail or emotion. It’s critical to be the calm adult, and not to become a vulnerable child.

1. Calm handling of the problem. Stay calm and have a demeanor that conveys that the problem is your problem not something the child has to handle.

2. Clarity of the situation. When the child understands what the problem is, it actually frees the child from worrying about unexplained anxiety within the family.

3. Not child’s responsibility. It helps the child to understand what is causing the yelling, crying or worry within a family, and to know that it is not his or her fault and that it is not his or her responsibility to fix the problem.

4. Problems can be dealt with. When a parent remains calm in identifying a problem and expressing that he or she has some uncomfortable emotions around the problem, the child can internalize the process of handling difficulties that inevitably occur in life. the child learns that loss and big emotions can be handled without falling apart.

Marital Conflict

After a fight, apologize to the child, saying something like, “I’m sorry we had a fight and that it probably scared you. We’re going to try to handle things better in the future.”

Serious Illness

If someone in the family has a serious or perhaps terminal illness, it’s important to tell the child that that family member is sick and to say that unfortunately this is part of life. Tell the child that what that person wants most is that the family members go on living life and that they all spend some enjoyable time together. That way the child knows what’s going on, but does not have to feel guilty about continuing to live and enjoy life.

Violence and Abuse

It’s important to let the child know that abuse, hitting, or any kind of violence is wrong and that the family is going to get help so that it doesn’t happen again. It is critical to actually go get help or change the living situation if you live with an abusive individual.

By not stating that the abusive behavior is wrong and not making changes, there is an acceptance and validation of the abusive behavior, which will etch tremendous fear in the child’s psyche. You can say, “What you saw last night was really wrong and bad and it must have been scary for you. We’re going to get help so that it doesn’t happen again.”

When you talk to your children from a calm and adult demeanor about difficult situations, without excessive detail, they will learn how to handle problems better and it will prevent their inner anxiety from going out of control.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen
@alisonpoulsen “Fearful Children”

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