What should I say to my child when…?

Father and son

Three experts give helpful advice on how to talk to your children about traumatic events.

When you’ve suffered a miscarriage

Ruth Bender-Atik, the National Director of the Miscarriage Association says:

Like adults, children can react very differently to all sorts of situations. Some can be very enquiring, asking questions to ascertain what has happened, while others are simply more sensitive to how a parent is feeling.

Talking to a child about a miscarriage is never easy and you may decide not to say anything at all. But it’s often difficult to hide everything.

Even though your child might not have known you were pregnant, they may well notice that something is wrong and react in some way. They may need extra love and reassurance.

My advice is to tell them as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and to fit your explanation to what you feel your child will understand.

One parent said that she explained that pregnancy is simply like planting seeds – and only some of them grow into plants. Another told her four-year-old that the baby wasn’t strong enough to grow big and come out of Mum’s tummy like he did.

If you do you choose to tell them, it’s usually best to keep to straightforward, clear explanations. If you say ‘lost’ to young children, they may think you mean ‘mislaid’ and may worry that they will get ‘lost’ too. If you say the baby has fallen asleep, they may become frightened of falling asleep.

Once you’ve told them, understand that they will react in their own way. Your children may carry on as usual as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. They might be quite upset – or they might want to comfort you because you’re upset.

Accept that they may think about it differently from adults and most of all respect their ability to accept the situation and to understand.

For further advice, follow this link for a helpful leaflet which has been written by the Miscarriage Association.

When you’ve been made redundant

Denise Knowles, a relationship and family counsellor who also works at the counselling and support service Relate says:

The first thing I’d recommend to parents is to have a conversation between yourselves, if possible. This will enable you to reach an understanding of what the redundancy will mean to you as a couple, as well as a family. It’ll also ensure that you will have all the answers about what the redundancy will mean for your child– whether that may be needing to move house or change school, for example. Telling them together presents the prospect of change in a more secure way for your child.

Using age-appropriate language is also very important when discussing redundancy with a child. It may not be appropriate to lumber them with issues about tax, for example. Talk about redundancy in a way that is appropriate and relevant to them. Their needs are, in this instance, practical and, in a way, selfish – so you need to consider, as a parent, what redundancy will really mean to them.

One of the most important things to tell your children about redundancy is the changes in routine they may expect. It might be that whoever is being made redundant will be around more often and therefore may take them to school, for example. Emphasise what these changes in routine will mean to them in a clear way.

For older children, you may have to tell them that you will need to use the computer more often to search for jobs, for example. For younger children, it may mean that the parent made redundant may be cooking the family dinners or picking them up from school. I’d advise parents that when communicating this, ensure that you emphasise the fact that it may well be a temporary phase.

Remember to warn them that it might mean you won’t be able to go on planned holidays or go out for family outings as often. Be as honest and open with them as you think appropriate.

Although you may not be able to treat them as often, tell them that if that happens, it isn’t because they’ve been naughty. Sometimes, children can feel responsible for things that have happened and it’s important for parents to reinforce that this is none of their fault.

Older children who have a greater sense of understanding may feel embarrassed about asking for pocket money, for example, so you should anticipate this, and discuss the changes they may expect with them so they are prepared.

If redundancy does happen, the individual concerned is usually informed in advance, so this gives you time to come to terms with it yourself before you begin to involve your children. Giving them as clear an outline as possible will help reassure them and make them feel involved in the process. When the time comes that changes happen, it won’t come as a complete shock because they’ve had time to deal with it.

An additional factor to take into consideration is the fact that your family may not be alone in having to deal with this. If you live in a small town, for example, other parents may also have lost their jobs. If this is the case, it’s important to tell your children that redundancy can be different for other families, and this is how you are going to deal with it.

If you feel that the best route is to not tell your child about the redundancy, then this, of course, is your choice. However, in my experience, when redundancy does come into a family’s life, children do pick up on any changes.

I would always say that if children’s behaviour changes once you’ve told them, and you’re worried, then seek some assistance from a family or a children and young person’s counsellor.

If you need further support with family issues that may arise from a redundancy, contact Relate to speak to a qualified and experienced counsellor.

When you or a close relative has been diagnosed with a terminal illness

Ann Scanlon, a children and young people’s counsellor from the terminal illness charity, Marie Curie, says:

My biggest piece of advice is for parents to always be guided by their child throughout this process, no matter how old they are.

Often, parents will want to protect their child and therefore refrain from telling them what’s going on, but it’s essential they’re made part of the journey. Children can often pick things up very quickly and to exclude them can make them feel very isolated.

Although the time after a major diagnosis is very difficult, children should be reassured and know they’re included in what’s going on. From my experience, a lot of children don’t necessarily need to know the ins-and-outs of the illness. It’s supporting them with the emotional implications of the illness that’s really important for them.

Usually, a child will display signs, such as asking questions, which show they’ve recognised changes. This may be the opportunity for parents to start a conversation with them. A lot of the time we presume as adults that a child may not want to hear or that we need to protect them. No matter how devastating, keeping children away from what’s going on is far worse than involving them.

Asking questions to gauge how much they understand is a good place to start. Using open questions such as ‘what do you think has happened?’ or ‘why do you think Mum and Dad have been sad lately?’ encourages them to start talking and allows you to find out what they understand.

Always be guided by them and ask how much they want to know. The child’s age is, of course, a factor which parents should take into account when talking to their child. Some children and young people want to know everything. For others, minimal information is enough. Being open and honest and asking whether they understand or if they’d like to know more is crucial.

Translating what your diagnosis means in a way they’ll understand is also important to remember for younger children. For example, I’ve had parents describe cancer as a rock inside them that can’t be got rid of or fixed. Some story books on the subject can really help them to understand what’s going on and what to expect.

Often young people may feel pressured to do things differently after a diagnosis, especially teenagers. They may not feel they should invite their friends round after school or go out on the weekends. Parents should stress that none of this is their fault and that they can still do those important things for themselves.

While you should constantly reassure and comfort your child at this time, never give them false hope. It’s very important to comfort and involve them in your journey, but I wouldn’t advise parents to tell them that you, or the person close to them who is ill, will be ok no matter what.

Overall, being honest and open really reassures your child. Re-checking how they feel over time reminds them that their feelings are important.

Parents should also check what services are available at their child’s school. There are organisations, such as Place2Be, which can help support them even further, should you feel they need it.

*Ann has recommended the following books that help parents talk to their child about illness and death:

A Dragon in Your Heart by Sophie LeBlanc
Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney

For further support, please visit Marie Curie's page on supporting a child when someone dies


Please note, the advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and is not necessarily the view of either Parent Zone or CEOP.

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