Monday, May 27, 2013

Talking with kids about difficult subjects

I remember when my ex-husband and I were preparing to sit down and tell the kids we were getting a divorce. We put it off for a long time. I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know the right words to use and I was so afraid of hurting them.

We finally did have the conversation and it was uncomfortable and awkward, but it was also okay. It gave them the information they needed to make sense of what they were already sensing and intuiting from the tense energy that had existed in the house for some time.

Since then, I have had to have many difficult conversations with my kids. The upside, I suppose, is that I’ve become more confident and fluent in having these discussions. I no longer dread sitting down to explain something uncomfortable, nor do I cringe when the kids ask difficult questions. Rather, I welcome the opportunity to dispel confusion and help them make sense of their world. I feel honored that they are comfortable enough to ask.

Along the way, I’ve talked to quite a few counselors to get their advice on how to talk to my kids about violence, safety, divorce, restraining orders and, of course, their father’s criminal conviction.

I’m a big believer in telling the truth. When my ex first discovered he was under criminal investigation, he became suicidal. Those around him expected him to take his own life before submitting to prison. I remember my attorney suggested to me that if he did take his life, I would at least be spared from having to tell the kids about the child pornography charges. That I could bear that secret alone, and they would never have to know.

I’m sure his comment was well-meaning, but it was also a bit ridiculous. It would mean telling my children a lie about one of the most significant and devastating events of their lives – the loss of their father.

There are so many levels on which children gather knowledge about a significant event. The spoken word is only one of them. They also feel what’s going on around them – they know when someone is tense or anxious or joyful. They are attuned to the emotional climate. They sense the energetic imprints in their environment. If we don’t provide a clear explanation of what’s happening, they will fill in the gaps themselves. They will create their own narrative to explain what’s going on, and they will generally assume some level of responsibility for whatever happened.

I believe we need to tell our kids the truth. We need to give them age-appropriate explanations for what is happening in their lives and then be available to answer their questions, honestly and non-judgmentally, as they come up.

My children are 8 and 10. They were 5 and 7 when their father first came under investigation and was essentially removed from their lives. At such a young age, they are limited in what they can (and should) understand about crimes of a sexual nature. They understand their father’s crime on a very basic level. As they get older and their understanding grows, they will need additional information (and love and support and reassurance).

When I sat the kids down recently to tell them their father pleaded guilty and was incarcerated, it was not a big surprise to them. They knew his trial was coming up. They knew it was likely he was going to jail for several years. I explained to them that because he chose to tell the truth about what he did, he would spend less time in prison. I told them that this had nothing at all to do with them, and that he still loved them.

I could see them struggling to make sense of it. My son asked, “That’s good, right? That he told the truth?”

“Yes, it is always good to tell the truth.”

He was quiet for a moment, and then: “Why would Daddy do that?”

I told him that when people are in a lot of pain – not physical pain, but when they hurt emotionally – they will do things to try to make that pain go away. They can make healthy choices, such as seeing a counselor or talking with someone they love and trust. Sometimes, however, people do things that harm themselves and/or other people. I gave the example of drinking too much alcohol as a way someone may harm themselves (because I’ve explained alcohol addiction to them in the past). I used the example of domestic violence as a way someone may harm others, as they also understood that concept.

People hurt other people because they are in pain. It was the most honest and fundamental explanation I knew to give, and really the only way I know to make sense of it myself.

My family’s experiences were fairly extreme. However, all of us experience loss or trauma at some point in our lives. We get divorced, we lose a family member, our children are bullied, or we watch the news and find ourselves having to explain what a terrorist attack is and why it happens.

All of us will have to broach difficult subjects with our children at some point.

I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to have those conversations with kids. I'm still learning. If I were to condense what I know, it would be this:

  1. Don’t avoid the subject
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Make it age-appropriate
  4. Don’t provide unnecessary details (the younger the child, the fewer the details)
  5. Create an environment where open communication is welcome
  6. Don't villify anyone, especially someone they love. Talk about good and bad actions. Communicate your values
  7. Check in with kids periodically to see how they’re feeling
  8. Listen to what they have to say
  9. Don’t judge their responses
  10. They may be angry, quiet, clingy, or they may act completely normal – and their response may change from day to day
  11. Communicate with those around you who can provide support and understanding (counselors, school teachers, family members)
  12. Be reassuring. Let your children know that you will keep them safe
  13. Tell them they are not to blame – again and again
  14. Tell them they are absolutely lovable and you love them – again and again
  15. Prepare to be amazed by their beauty and resilience
It is an oft-repeated truism that every dark cloud has a silver lining (and perhaps I should add ‘avoid truisms’ to the list above). However unhelpful such platitudes are to someone who is in the midst of trauma, this is one in which I sincerely believe.

The tragedy of the past few years has brought with it several gifts. One of those gifts is a closer, stronger relationship with my children. I’m more likely today to consider the impact of my words, to ask them questions, to stop what I’m doing and listen to them – really listen to them. I am more connected to them today than I’ve ever been.

That connection was fostered, in large part, by lots and lots of honest and open communication.

Have you had to talk to your children about something difficult? Do you have any tips to add to the list above?


  1. I had to explain to my son why his biological father has never been part of my son's life (by his own choice). That was hard.

    I regularly navigate tricky discussions with my 6 year old daughter on topics such as racism (she is a fair skinned Aboriginal) and her connection with her culture but that isn't hard as such, can just be tricky sometimes especially when I am not Aboriginal. Generally her father answers her questions about race and culture but when he isn't home it falls to me.

    1. Wow, that is a hard one (with your son's father). I'm not sure how I would respond to that. I think that may come up for us later on down the road. While their father didn't explicitly choose not to be a part of their life, he chose actions that resulted in that.

  2. Oh and as a counsellor/therapist and a parent, I think you have done an amazing job of navigating everything with your children and your list is spot on.

  3. Excellent, K. Excellent list. And such a hugely important post.

    I'd add only - Let them know they can come and talk to you or ask questions anytime about what you've spoken about. And check that they are okay with that. I've found that it's almost like being able to help the child close a door on something but imagining a cat-flap or something in that door so that the event is not completely closed off to them/is not impassable or unmentionable now we've spoken, but that there is always that ability to revisit if they need to (and usually, they do if it's a big overarching event, such as yours or what we have here in our home - something that has passed but will forever affect them, and not always in a bad way).

    Love you. Love this post. xxx

    1. Thanks, K. I love what you've added. I think kids (and possibly adults) need to return to an event as they mature and their understanding of the world changes. They will have new questions that would not have occurred to them before. Love the cat flap analogy. xo

  4. You are such an inspiration.
    To come out of a heart wrenching situation and see the gifts.
    You will no doubt give your children amazing strength for their life journey as they see you as a shining example of ultimate strength and powerful mama love.
    I have always been open and honest with my girl and because of that we have a very close bond.
    It hasn't always been easy when certain things had to be discussed but I have a peace inside knowing she feels she can come to me with anything she has on her mind.
    Parenting can be so hard even when everything seems to be going right.
    Thank you for sharing and showing us we can come out the other side of the incredible strong compassionate person like you.xx

    1. Thanks, sweet Deb. How beautiful that your daughter feels comfortable coming to you with anything she needs to talk about. That's a real testament to your own good parenting. I think about that often -- what kind of relationship I want to have with my kids when they are adults. I hope they never stop sharing their hearts with me. xo

  5. I think you have an excellent list! We have 4 kids at home. Our youngest has a fatal condition and limited life span. At first we wanted to protect our older kids (ages 9-13) from the pain and worry of knowing what was going on. We quickly realized that they were making their own inferences about what was happening and we needed to talk to them and give them the details they needed to know.

    It was an intensely painful conversation. I think it hurt worse to tell my children their brother's diagnosis than it did me to hear it! But, it really did help things in the long run. We opened a dialog and we continue to address things as needed.

    Two thoughts I would add to your list. The first is to take into account the needs of your children. We actually told two of ours together, and the third one separately. The two we told together, we knew would take comfort from each other. The third we told separately we knew would need all of our attention and would additionally be very distressed with seeing her siblings upset. So, for us, we did what worked for each child.

    My second thought is to involve a therapist when you think it's appropriate. One of my kids is very quiet and has withdrawn in the past year. It's hard to know if that's just a change of puberty or if it has to do with the ongoing hospice situation in our house. Probably it's both. In any case, it felt appropriate to take him to see a therapist. He's a very considerate young man, and I was afraid he was holding a lot inside because he didn't want to upset us. This gives him another adult he can talk with.

    I really think your list is excellent! We got a lot of the same advice from the hospice social workers and the therapist we work with. Thank you so much for posting this! ~Carin

    1. Hi Carin, thanks for your beautiful comment. I am so sorry to hear about your child's terminal condition. How heart wrenching. What strength you must have to navigate this difficult journey and tend so thoughtfully to the needs of all your kids at the same time.

      I love the points that you added, and the care and attention you show in anticipating your children's varying needs.

      I agree about the therapy. I think while it's good for kids to know they can always come to us, that a skilled and trusted third-party can help the healing process. My kids have been involved in play therapy on and off for the past three years. I think it's helped them to express, experientially, some of what they were feeling but perhaps could not articulate. It also showed them that there are lots of caring adults around who will be there for them.

      I wish all the best for your and you beautiful family. I wish much healing for your journey ahead. xo

  6. Magnificent post!! All these things I do. Off to share it with the world. Love you, kindred spirit xxx

  7. When my son died, even in the midst of that horrible day, I knew that keeping the kids in the light instead of the dark was the most important thing I could do for them. I couldn't take back what had happened (GOD, if only) but I could minimise the damage by being honest with them.
    I made sure they knew what had happened, that they were able to make choices about the funeral (including putting things in the coffin etc) and that they were are a part of saying goodbye.
    I took them to the cemetery when THEY wanted to go, we had photos around, and we talked.
    As they got older, the questions were fewer but more specific. (my kids were aged 3 to 13 at the time)
    His death, while horrible, was never a taboo.
    I met later a lady whose mother (and I cannot blame her for this, she wasn't coping herself) kept the kids out of it all. They were sent away till weeks after, and the subject was never mentioned. They had all kinds of un-resolved issues and fears as adults.

    What you and your kids have been through is a situation no-one would ever want to be in. You've handled it all with maturity and wisdom. You've done the primary job of a parent, which is to keep the kids safe - not only physically, but emotionally.
    They are lucky to have you.

    Love. XXX

    1. I can't imagine what it is like to lose a child, Toni. To have to navigate that grief and shepherd your children through it at the same time. Thanks for walking with me through this entire journey. x

  8. What wise advice there is here. Thank you so much for sharing. I think the list you give and the additions other parents have given are invaluable. As always, I am amazed at your strength and grace. xx

  9. Oh, yes. Lots of difficult conversations in our house and plenty more as the boys get older and are better equipped to handle the truth behind their father's conviction and our divorce. The older we all get, the more ready I feel for those conversations and like you, more prepared to stop and listen when they start asking questions. They never ask for more than they are able to handle, which I think is a miracle of nature. Their curiosity never outstrips their ability to understand.

    1. Yes, I imagine we've had some very similar conversations with our kids. x

  10. Kids deserve the truth. They can spot a lie and a cop-out from a mile away and I think it messes up that ability in them if we deny it. Always dealing with the truth will make them stronger as kids and adults.

    1. Absolutely, Steve. What a brilliant point. It does mess with their ability to trust their own intuition. That's a gift that will serve them well throughout their lives.

  11. You are just amazing! What lucky children to have such a brave, inspiring, insightful & loving mother. Xx


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