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Being Honest With Your Child in Life’s Tough Stuff

There are many events in a parent’s life that are difficult to explain to their child(ren); divorce, a jailed spouse, adoption, drug use, or death are circumstances that parents often try to hide from their children. Some parents choose to tell lies (Daddy isn’t here because he’s on a trip), have someone else talk with their child, or avoid the matter all together.

Many parents have a hard time personally processing these experiences themselves and often are trying to protect their child from the pain or frustration they themselves are experiencing. Quite rarely does a parent attempt to hide life’s tough stuff from their child in order to hurt them; their intentions are good.

However, the silence or lies are seldom good for a child; in fact, these methods of handling life’s pains are typically quite harmful for the child and for the parent-child relationship. Children are much more aware of their environment and circumstances than many adults give them credit for; such was the case of 6 year old Katie*:

Katie was told her mommy was sick when in actuality her mother was in jail. At first Katie did not ask questions but as days turned in to months Katie began to question: What is Mommy sick with? Can we visit Mommy? Soon Katie began to wonder if her mother was dead already. Filled with confusion and questions that remained unanswered Katie began acting out; she cried often during the day, began yelling at her grandmother, and was increasingly hostile. When the truth was finally told to Katie her aggressive behavior only escalated.

Handling the truth with “small lies” or silence is detrimental for many reasons, two of them forefront:

1) Parents (or other significant caregivers) appear untrustworthy.

2) Children- and every human, for that matter- need understanding.

It is the second reason that is very crucial for parents to understand, as the first reason speaks for itself. Children want life to make sense; children long to understand their life, the people they care about, and their surroundings. When parents do not explain things clearly to their children an “unknown area” is created. Because of the psychological need for things to be understandable, a child’s mind steps in to fill in the gaps. And this is where the trouble lies. The child will tell themselves stories about the event/situation to connect all of the dots; often the stories that are created are ones in which the child blames themselves for whatever circumstance it is that is confusing.

  • Consider a child whose parents’ divorce; many children are not given an age-appropriate explanation to the divorce and ultimately wonder if they are the ones who caused the separation. Their mind steps in to fill in the gaps of this painful event: “Maybe they fought over me. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. If I had been nicer to my brother we might all still be together.” Their view of themselves becomes skewed at this point.

These views get carried into adulthood. I worked with Thomas* whose father left his family when Thomas was 2 weeks old; this was an event that his family seldom talked about. Because Thomas couldn’t understand what would make a man abandon his family, he still continued to question at age 49 what he did to make his father leave.

Children do not need all the details about various tragedies and poor behaviors that take place around them. However, they do need the truth delivered in an age appropriate manner. As the child gets older further information can be provided as necessary and, again, age appropriately.

Things to consider when preparing to talk with your child:

  • Think about what your child has seen or heard that might need clarification.

  • As applicable, resist the urge to gloss over a parent’s bad behavior (or other significant person) to protect your child; brief statements such as, “Daddy has been making bad choices lately”, is better than bad mouthing a parent or painting a false reality.

  • Help remove personal responsibility from your child’s mind regarding the situation.

  • Take every opportunity to provide love, comfort, and affirmation to your child. This can never be done enough.

*The names of my clients, as well as a few minor details, have been changed to protect their identity.

For more personalized parenting support please contact me to schedule an appointment so we can discuss your parenting needs further.

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