I didn’t attend medical school, but I listen closely to my daughter who did and my son who is currently in his third year. They often learn things that apply well to parenting children who experienced early trauma. This post on sharing difficult news with children is one of those lessons.
“Mom, you know what I learned from the chief resident today?”
My daughter, Hannah, was in medical school soaking up knowledge at a rate reserved for the young and intellectually curious.
When you give a child hard news, you have to get down low so your heart is on the same level as theirs.
Even now, years later, I have not forgotten those words.
Hannah has done that now, many times. She’s given hard news to children, to their parents, to loved ones in emergency rooms. She knows the right way to do it, but even more, she understands children and their tender hearts.
We may not be in medical school, but as parents of children from “hard places,” we often have to give our children difficult news.
This news may be devastating, a first (birth) parent has died, a parent’s rights have been terminated, an older sibling has gone to jail.
The news could be less tragic, but to the child who has experienced many losses, it might feel quite devastating, a longed-for visit is canceled, he can’t attend a field trip due to an appointment, her best friend has chicken pox and will miss her birthday party.
When we get down to the level of our child’s heart, we enter their world.
This may be sitting on the edge of her bed, it may mean crawling down next to him on the floor, it could even mean climbing the ladder of his bunk bed to get close enough.
At the level of her heart, we are able to see her eyes. Like Dr. Karyn Purvis taught, we can use gentle words, “Let me see your beautiful eyes,” and then give them our soft eyes in turn.
Not all children will accept eye contact, but we can always try.
If our child is comfortable with touch, we can offer a hand to hold or rest our hand on their arm or shoulder.
Then we share the news that needs to be shared.
We must be truthful and use simple language. If someone has died, we don’t use euphemisms such as “gone” or “passed away.” These are unclear for children.
If it’s very complex and tragic, we may need to practice saying it, or get help in advance from our child’s therapist.
If necessary we may want to practice saying it while looking in a mirror to be able to say the words with an expression that will be helpful and supportive to our child.
Some news may need to be shared in the therapist’s office with extra support present for both parent and child.
There are hard moments in every child’s life – in every adult’s life too.
Let’s remember this very simple tool.
Get down to the level of the heart – let your heart connect with your child’s, and be fully present in that moment.
Of course, there is so much more to this topic, these are just a few thoughts I’ve been pondering. Thanks for learning along with me.
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