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What do we hope to offer our children above all else, as parents? For most of us, the answer is a stable, safe and happy childhood free of fear, pain, and sorrow.
Life tends to mess with those goals, however, and while we might be able to make our children feel safe and loved, we can never prevent difficult issues from coming into their lives.
Most children are exposed to loss and trauma over the course of their childhood, either first-hand or through relatives, friends or the news. They may be confronted by death, serious illnesses like cancer or dementia, suicide, war and violence, sex and sexual abuse. The list goes on.
I remember how astonished I was when a family friend lost his wife to cancer... and then decided not to tell his young son. "Mommy is being treated in a different hospital," the bereft father told his boy. "And you can't visit." The boy's grandmother explained that they hoped he would forget — that he would forget his own mother.
That boy is a young man now, and he did find out his mother passed away eventually, from someone at school. Everyone knew about what happened except him, and we can probably hold his story up as an example of how not to handle difficult issues.
It's easy to say too little, because denial is a powerful natural response many of us are almost possessed by after loss or trauma. We don't want to acknowledge "it" happened ourselves, so we definitely don't want to discuss it openly with our children.
Saying too much is also possible. "Your father was a violent alcoholic, and now he's dead," my mother told me when I was tiny. I received all the gory details without asking once, and recall sharing them with neighborhood kids in their full glory when they teased me for not having a dad. Telling the kids from Kindergarten what happened to my father made them shut up. They were shocked, but I wasn't — ever again, by anything.
Every parent has their own tough topics they dread discussing with their kids, whether it's school shootings, the latest war, or something more personal like divorce, death or illness in the family. How do you get it right? How do you make sure you say neither too much nor too little? How do you start?
Begin Early — But Keep It Age-Appropriate
Show your children that there are no taboo topics in your family from an early age, and don't be afraid to show your feelings. "Mommy is sad today, because it is the anniversary of grandma's death," or "we don't see uncle George because he has a drinking problem and he makes himself and people around him unsafe."
You model healthy emotional behavior by being open about your feelings, and talking about your own feelings will also inspire your kids to ask questions — about the topics you bring up, and others. Do make sure to ask how your child is feeling during the good times as well as the bad. You want talking about feelings to be a pleasant, comforting experience and not a lecture.
Keeping your conversations age-appropriate may be hard at times. You'll find out how much your child knows by asking for feedback all the time. If your child approaches you with a tough question, follow up on that question before going into details. "What do you think it means?", and "What have you heard?" are good starting points.
For example, your child might ask why people commit suicide. You'll want to start off by finding out what he thinks suicide is, and where he heard about the topic. Perhaps, he heard the word on the news and doesn't know what it means, or perhaps his friend's father committed suicide. The conversation will be entirely different depending on the context, obviously — so don't launch into lengthy explanations before you know what triggered the question.
You'll keep your credibility by being honest, and you will also show that you respect your child enough to tell the truth. Doing so will make it much more likely that you'll still be having open conversations with your child when he is a teenager.