Parenting Pep Talk: Talking About Death and Divorce With Kids

It’s best to be honest with your kids, but first assess how much information they need to know.”

Dr. Jaime Black
Dr. Jaime Black

Parents and adults are often reluctant to discuss certain topics with children. Death and divorce, for example, are challenging subjects. Do we tell children the truth, do we sugar coat it, or just flat out lie? Many well-intentioned parents skirt the truth for fear of stripping children of their innocence. Some are afraid they will mess up the conversation and end up avoiding topics altogether. Figuring out how to discuss difficult topics with children is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. Parents must turn inward and reflect on their reasons for providing blatant lies or truths or anything in between. Here is some advice for helping children deal with two very challenging topics.

Sub Head: Dealing with Death

Helping children understand and cope with death can be challenging, especially if parents are grieving themselves. It is important, however, to help children understand that their beloved grandparent or pet is not coming back. Avoid telling them that Grandpa “went away” or that their dog “went off to live on a farm.” Young children especially are concrete thinkers and will expect Grandpa to come back or ask to visit the dog on the farm. Or they will be mad that you gave their dog away in the first place! Euphemisms like “passed away,” “gone to a better place,” or “left us” just prolong an inevitable conversation and could lead to a lack of trust in the long run. Help children understand that death is sad but natural and allow them to feel what they feel.  It is OK to use the term “died.”

Sub Head: Dealing with Divorce

Divorce is tricky and sometimes parents are too harsh or even lie when talking about the other parent. Consider how you explain your ex-spouse’s behavior. For example, it would be fine to say that “Mom is always late” in a nonjudgmental tone so that your child does not take it personally when Mom shows up late. However, it is not helpful to describe Mom as “mean” or “uncaring” when you would not have done that had you still been married. Think about your motives. Are you simply trying to get your child to side with you? Is that good for him or her in the long run?

Children are intuitive and can sense when something is wrong. They are also very imaginative and sometimes their imagined world can be far worse than reality. There are plenty of tricky topics out there! It’s best to be honest with your kids, but first assess how much information they need to know. If they ask, for example, about a school shooting, ask them what they know before answering. Take time to listen to what they know and then figure out what else they want to know. You can fill in the blanks without necessarily sharing all the gruesome details. Avoid lying. Lies can make them feel unsafe because they are wary about whom to trust.

Bad things happen and children need to learn to cope. They don’t turn into strong and capable grownups overnight. We need to teach them along the way. To quote Mr. Rogers, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable.”

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.

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