Psychology

Bad things happen

How do you explain events, like the current pandemic, to children? Their lives have probably been rocked by being pulled out of school or nursery. Mysteriously, they are not seeing grandparents and other close members of the family. They can’t go to the playground or see their friends. How do parents deal with this?

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As adults, we can use our experience to put bad events into perspective but children don’t have that experience yet and it’s our job to reassure them – without wrapping them up in cotton wool.

When children are small, it’s best to shield them as much as you can from the news. It may be better not watch the news when they are around as they may see disturbing visuals of what is happening.

Reading a newspaper is preferable as most children don’t start reading until five or six years old. Alternatively, watch the news or read the paper when they are not around.

Once children begin school, it becomes much more difficult to shield them from the world outside. They are likely to overhear other adults conversing – at this point you cannot completely protect them from anything.

At school, world issues are discussed in class as and when they happen, but of course you don’t have the input of school to fall back on at the moment. So if your child does ask questions, answer them but keep the facts simple.

Make sure you tell them bad news when they are not distracted by other things.

Reassure your child of the scale of the disaster and put it into context. All the bad things he may have seen or heard happening in other countries may not necessarily happen here in his home town, or to him. Use this as an opportunity to talk about natural disasters more widely and share your knowledge. Your child may even want to look up more about the subject on the internet with you.

For instance, there have been quite a few cases involving earthquakes and tsunami in different parts of the world recently. In that case, you might look on the internet and find out just how rare they are – especially in the UK. In the case of the coronavirus, although it has stopped your child going to school and it’s possible family members may get ill, you could gently point out that it’s not highly likely (statistically) that the illness will be serious and for most it will feel like a bad cold.

If you have a sick relative or friend, tell your child so he is aware they are ill. Should something bad then happen to them it will be less of a shock. Make sure you tell them bad news when they are not distracted by other things. Sit them down and get them to focus on what you are going to say and tell them in appropriate language for their age.

You don’t need to give them minute details, but be clear about what is going on. For example saying: ‘Grandpa has had a very bad cough and because he is old he has to go into hospital so the doctors and nurses can look after him’ will make your child aware that Grandpa is old and ill with a bad cough. It also introduces the idea, in a sensitive way, that Grandpa may not get better.

SIX BAD THINGS THAT CAN AFFECT CHILDREN

Natural disasters
Terrorism
Child abduction or murder
A pet dying
Mum or dad getting ill
Someone they love or know dying (this could be a friend)

TALKING ABOUT DEATH

If there is very bad news, like a relative dying, you may be shocked by the response you receive when you tell your child. He may be very matter of fact and accept death. Obviously, the reaction is affected by how much you have talked about it and what you and your child believe happens when someone dies. It is always best to be straight with your child and tell him that someone close to him has died, and why.

The degree of grief may have nothing to do with how close they were to the person. You may have a child who gets upset when the local postman dies because they delivered letters and said hello every morning. Conversely, your child may just take it in his stride when you tell him that grandpa passed away.

Many young children think that you have to be 100 years old to die, so you may be telling them something new which can raise doubts in their mind about when you are going to die. Be reasonably specific –perhaps Grandpa had a dodgy heart or a very bad cough. You don’t need to get too medical or mention the ‘C’ word.

We should encourage our children to talk about their worries and whenever they have questions – even if they are repetitive – answer them promptly.

Talk to them about the good things that that person brought into their lives and perhaps do something nice to remember them by. Choosing to take your child to a funeral or to say a final goodbye is a very personal decision. You may choose not to take them on the day but perhaps visit sometime later should they ask to go.

You can help your child come to terms with the news by letting him talk about it and listening to what he has to say. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, don’t dismiss them. Explain that you are there to protect him and that although you cannot guarantee to live forever, you have no plans to go anywhere. If he asks: ‘Will you die?’ tell him ‘At some time but I’ve no plans to do that for a very long time’.

You can’t brush bad news under the carpet if there’s a chance your child is, or could become, aware of it. We should encourage our children to talk about their worries and whenever they have questions – even if they are repetitive – answer them promptly. Before your child goes to sleep, check he is okay with his world. Ask him about his day and if any worries crop up, give him as much time as he needs.

HOW TO BREAK BAD NEWS

Talk to your child one-to-one
Make sure there are no distractions
Use age-appropriate language
Give the bare facts
Ask your child if he has any questions about what you have told him
Tell him that he can come and talk to your whenever he feels sad

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