When Rhonda Blake learned she needed a serious operation, she was unsure how to break the news to her teenage children. “I was nervous about the surgery, but I didn’t want them to worry, so I told them it was just a minor procedure,” she says. “After I got home from the hospital, they told me they had known I was scared and they were upset with me because I made so light of it.”
After Jack and Marnie Phillips lost their home in a house fire, they were uncomfortable talking about it with their daughter. “Whenever my daughter brought up the subject, I’d tell her let’s not talk about the fire, it’s over now, let’s just think about the new house we’re going to live in,” Jack relates. “It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling a friend how scared she was in the fire that I realized I never gave her a chance to tell me how she felt.”
Most families face a setback sooner or later: a serious automobile accident, the loss of a job, financial difficulties, a house fire or natural disaster, a diagnosis of cancer or death of a relative.
At those times it can be hard to know what to say to your children or how much detail you should go into. Sometimes it may seem best just to pretend the problem doesn’t exist rather than address what happened. Yet your children are going to feel the stress of the situation, whether you help them deal with it or not.
Nobody is Immune
When any family member is facing a crisis, the tension usually spreads to everyone else in the family. Says Russell Jones, Ph.D., a family counselor and professor at Virginia Technical University: “Children will often mimic the behavior of their parents. If a child sees Mom and Dad upset or screaming, it’s likely that the child will react in a similar way.”
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when facing a crisis is not being open and honest about it with their children. “Often parents try to keep the problem from their children because they don’t want them to worry,” says Nancy Schlossberg, Ed.D., professor emerita at the University of Maryland and author of Going to Plan B. “Unless parents explain what’s bothering them, their children may think that something they did is to blame. This can be a worse burden on them than knowing what’s really happening would be.”
When parents try to hide a family problem such as financial difficulties, their children may still learn about the situation from a secondary source. Sometimes the whole neighborhood knows that the father lost his job, but no one has told the children until they hear the news from the child across the street.
Says Carol Goldberg, Ph.D., president of Getting Ahead Programs (a corporation that conducts stress-management workshops for families): “If you’re not open with your children and then they find out anyway, it makes them feel like you don’t trust them and that they’re not a vital part of the family.”
Make Things Easier for Everyone
Even when the crisis is something the entire family must confront, such as a natural disaster or automobile accident, parents may not feel comfortable discussing it with their children.
“Many times parents inadvertently reinforce fear and anxiety in their children by telling them to not talk about a stressful situation,” Dr. Jones says. “That gives the children no outlet to express their feelings and to have the situation normalized.
“Children need to know their feelings are real, that their experiences are not unique to them and that others have felt the same way and made it through similar situations.”
No one wants to talk about unpleasant situations or share bad news, yet sometimes doing so is a necessary part of parenting.
“One of our roles as parents is that of shouldering problems and burdens because we’re older and bigger and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel that our children can’t,” says Bettie Youngs, Ph.D., a family counselor and author of Stress and Your Child .
She adds: “Parents, as having the leadership role in the family, need to think about what’s happening in their lives and how that is going to affect their children, and then present the news in a way that is both kind and gentle.”
The following suggestions may help you break bad news to your children and help them face family setbacks positively and courageously.
Be open and honest. Show your children you respect their ability to understand the problem. Get it out in the open and reduce stress for everyone concerned.
Keep in mind that, if your children see you becoming worried or anxious without an obvious reason, they may begin to think: Oh, no, Dad is upset with me.
Dr. Schlossberg says: “It’s important that parents take a look at what the problem is and figure out how they’re going to deal with the situation, because if they are coping poorly that is going to spill over into the children and make them anxious, worried and fearful.”
Remember that your reaction to the crisis will be the model for your child.
If your family is undergoing financial difficulties, for instance, your children do not need to hear an emotional outburst from Dad that everything’s falling apart. However, they need an explanation, in an objective way, that because of the situation they can’t go to summer camp or that you have to postpone buying the new bicycles you had promised them. (Have some reasonable alternative in mind, though.)
Although you should make it clear to the children what kind of changes the family has to make during this period, you shouldn’t overwhelm them with information or bring up larger issues they haven’t asked about. Trying to second-guess what they want to know can have the unintentional effect of planting worries they had never thought of.
It’s good to let your children know you’re unhappy about the situation, but you shouldn’t burden them with more than they can handle. It’s best to simply say you are concerned; for example: “I’m concerned that my paycheck may not cover all the things that we’re used to having now that Dad isn’t working.”
Back to Dr. Youngs: “When parents are worried or fearful, children worry and are fearful,” she says. “Kids expect their parents to be everything, to be their security, to make their world happen, whether they are 16 or 6. It worries kids that their parents are worried. Concern, on the other hand, is legitimate. It says you are on the ball with the situation because all is not well.”
Get your children to express their opinions and assumptions. Encourage questions to try to get your children to verbalize their concerns: “How are you feeling?” “Did that make you upset?” “Did that scare you?” By asking these kinds of questions you give children an opportunity to express what they are thinking, to have the experience normalized by their seeing that others react like they do when bad things happen.
Also, give your children time to think about what you’ve told them. They need time to accept whatever is or isn’t going to happen.
Provide a sense of hope. Find something about the situation you can be positive about. Make it clear that you’re not giving up and that you’re working on a plan to put the situation back on track. Stress that this has happened to other families, and your family can make it through too.
Reaffirm the importance and stability of your family. “Let the children know that the family is united in supporting each other, that no matter what happens the parents will make every effort to do the best they can for the children, and to overcome whatever obstacles there are,” Dr. Goldberg counsels.
Emphasize that, although tough times are not easy to face, one reason they happen is to make families stronger. Explain that it takes ingenuity and resourcefulness to face setbacks and that you know your family has the courage and strength to see the situation through.
Focus on specific steps each family member can take to help. Get your children involved in the solution stage. If the problem is financial, you could discuss the family budget at a family meeting and solicit input from the kids regarding ways the family could save money. Ask them questions such as: What suggestions do you have? What are some steps you could take to help?
“Sharing decisions regarding what to cut back on can make kids feel a part of the team and want to take responsibility for doing their part to help the family,” Dr. Schlossberg says. “You can alleviate a lot of the stress by involving your children in the solution stage, asking them to look at the issues, offer suggestions and be a part of the process.”
When you ask for their input and cooperation in improving the situation, they can learn important problem-solving and life skills. By working together to solve a problem, parents and children can grow closer when facing hard times.
The many setbacks in life can teach family members how to deal with them more effectively, how to minimize crises and how to work through them together. GN