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Death, Divorce, and other Difficult conversations to have with your child

When I was four years old, my father died. When I was six years old, my mother had remarried and separated. When I was 19, my mother told me that my father was a sperm donor. And at 26, I found myself going through a divorce, with a 4 year old of my own.

Nobody likes having uncomfortable conversations, and those conversations seem infinitely more complicated when having them with a child. If you’re reading this article, you’re likely facing exactly that, wondering; How do I break the bad news to my child in a way that is honest but untraumatizing? While your approach may differ based on the age of the child, the essence of every difficult conversation should always be honesty. Kids are smart, and even if they are toddlers, they will know that something is up if they are told a story instead of the truth. That being said, one probably shouldn’t be excessively graphic. Keep it short and to the point.

Let them guide the conversation

Children are naturally inquisitive, so letting them lead the conversation is a natural way to set boundaries for what should and shouldn’t be discussed. Encourage questions, and try to make it clear to your child that you welcome their inquiries and will be supportive in answering them. Never has the old adage “there are no silly questions” been more relevant than in holding a difficult conversation with a child. This might be a lengthy process, as children might have questions or comments that they don’t feel comfortable with sharing at first. An open door policy is essential for your child to process grief and trauma. Ask them how they feel about x, and answer honestly if they want to know how you feel when y happens.

Translate the trauma in a way they can understand

When our dog died in January of 2020, I struggled with how to explain death as a concept to our then two year old. We had had a string of deaths the previous year, so it wasn’t her first introduction to the topic, but this was the first time a central figure in our daughter’s life had passed away. I knew that I was going to tell her the truth; that mayfair had left this planet. But I didn’t know how to explain my concept of passing on in a way that would make sense for her. Thus came the “cloud place”. I wanted to make sure that my daughter didn’t feel a complete severing between her and our old Jack Russell, so I tried to describe my version of heaven to her, saying that our doggie was resting in the cloud place with lots of treats. We still have the occasional “phone call” to her, but the fact that Mayfair won’t be coming to visit seems to have sunk in.

What to keep to yourself

If there is one thing you should keep from your child, it’s negativity. I’m aware of how paradoxical this sounds, but bad news and negativity are two very different beasts. Bad news is the essential communication: letting your child know that a beloved pet has passed away, that mommy and daddy [or mommy] aren’t going to continue to be together, or that there is serious illness in the family. Negativity on the other hand, is all of the complicated emotions that you might be feeling personally. We are supposed to be there for our children when they are young, not the other way around, and it will be difficult enough for them to process without the weight of your own feelings layered on top.

Divorce and separation are especially risky when it comes to an intermingling of the two, partly because they tend to go on for an extended period of time, partly because they involve acrimony between the two people who matter the most to children–their parents. On top of that, separations are often passion fueled, prolonged by the rage of embittered ex-lovers who are resentful of all the energy they centered around their former life partner. So here you are, in the middle of a vicious battle with the person you once shared the most intimate parts of your life with, watching them hurt you in ways that were previously inconceivable to you. And when you’re with the child you both share, you have to speak positively about this person who is actively hurting you. It’s crazy and frustrating, but at the end of the day, your child is going to make their own judgments regardless of your negative commentary. Children certainly won’t appreciate the burden of defending their parents from your isms. No matter how bad the behaviour of your former significant other, it’s so important to be mindful of the way in which you speak to your child, and to focus on sharing positive things about their other parent with them. For example, “Mommy and Daddy both love you very much. We aren’t living together because we want to be the best parents we can be, and we think we can be better parents to you if we are not together.”

Get Help

There is no shame in looking to outside resources when going through something difficult like a death in the family or a separation. There are many types of child therapists, including ones that specialize in grief counseling. Far from the mental tableau of a child on a recliner listing out their woes, therapy for young children is often play based and not intimidating at all. We all want our children to consider us their closest confidante, but sometimes it takes a person who is removed from the family for your child to unburden themselves. And that’s ok.

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