Most parents want to protect their children, not just from physical dangers, but also from the emotional hurt and pain that life can bring. While we can accept the small hurts our children face most days – misunderstandings with classmates, losing a favorite toy – we tend to believe we’re doing our children a favor by sheltering them from difficulties in our own lives or from the bigger problems of the world in general.
The result, unfortunately, can be not a child who is protected, but one who is growing up with a faulty perception of marriage and family life, and a distorted picture of the real world that he or she will ultimately have to face.
The questions that all parents must face is how much to tell your children, as well as how and when to tell them. There aren’t always easy answers. But whether the issue is domestic unhappiness, family financial woes, the anxieties of international terrorism or any of the stresses that today’s families may be facing, it is important to honestly include your children in a developmentally appropriate way in the issues your family may be facing.
It helps to realize that children, even fairly young ones, are often more aware of problems than we usually suspect. They recognize when a parent is upset, extra tired, at home more than usual or acting in unusual ways. They overhear discussions of family unhappiness, economic problems, a job loss, or other problem issues.
Getting negative news in such bits and pieces often leaves children with a poor understanding of what the real problem is. The result can be an assumption by the child that it is something he or she did, or didn’t do, that is now making Mommy and Daddy so unhappy, angry or worried.
Parents can help their children develop in a healthy manner by letting them know that adult life is not all fun and games. While it’s not necessary to burden children with all the sordid details of problem relationships, bad work environments, or the loss of a job, don’t try to keep the kids uninformed when what is happening is having an impact on their lives.
Start by reassuring your child that he or she is not to blame for the problem. Simply saying, “We’re having some difficult times now, but it isn’t your fault,” both comforts and opens needed communication. Tell your child it’s okay to ask what’s wrong if he or she sees you upset, angry, crying, or looking worried. Children will feel reassured knowing they can ask questions, and less likely to blame themselves, if you are willing to include them and provide information.
The amount of information you actually share about your problems depends upon your child. Most children, especially younger ones, neither need nor want to know all the details of domestic strife or financial hardships. Share age-appropriate information that lets your child understand that he or she is included, that the problem isn’t his or her fault, and that the parents are doing their best to handle the issue.
You want to share such information at a time when you and your children can sit down together, without distractions. Provide an opportunity for your children to pay attention, ask questions, and understand what is happening. Reassure them as much as you can.
Your child’s school counselor can be a good source of information on how to share potentially troubling news with your children. As a counseling professional, he or she will treat your conversation confidentially. The school counselor can also offer advice on handling behavioral changes that often occur in children at times of troubling news, and he or she should be able to recommend books that can help in specific areas.
But whether your family situation concerns divorce, a job change, relocation or other major change, deciding how to communicate about it with your children should be one of your first – not last – priorities.
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Dr. Smith is the American Counseling Association’s Associate Executive Director for Professional Affairs. He also serves as the ACA representative to the American Red Cross Disaster Response team, providing counseling during emergency situations, including the 9/11 tragedies.