Preparing Children for Hard Experiences

Conscientious parents often wonder how to prepare their young child for difficult experiences.  A difficult situation they’re facing may be as normal and predictable as the first death of a family pet.  Or, perhaps there is a visit to make to an ill grandparent or other relative in the hospital or nursing home. The usual advice is to “talk to your child” about the experience.  And certainly, it is never kind or helpful to leave children in the dark, trying to figure out all by themselves what is going on.

But, I happen to think the advice to just “talk to your child” is woefully limited.  For one thing, when parents ready themselves to “have the talk” with their child, they tend to focus on what is the most important part of the experience for themselves—and miss learning what the child is thinking about or wondering about.

For instance, it may be very important to you that your child’s grandparent who is dying from cancer is not suffering, and is not in pain.  In your mind, that may well seem like the most important message for you to tell your child, “Pop-pop is very sick honey, but don’t worry, he has medicine to make him feel okay.”  Or perhaps you are very worried about whether your friendly neighbor, who was in a bad car accident, will survive.  And so you offer your child the reassurance, “Don’t worry, Mary Jane is in the hospital where all the nice nurses and doctors are helping her get better.”

What the parent focuses on though, may not be the same thing as what the child is worried or wondering about.  Children, for instance, are such concrete thinkers, they often focus on very different issues than adults.

Three, four, and five year olds will often seem to face the injury, illness or death of others with an astonishing equanimity.  This is because young children simply cannot grasp the abstract concept of alive/not alive or here/not here in the same way that adults do.    Young children also do not have an adult-like capacity to feel great concern or compassion for others.  All of these understandings and emotions can and will develop, but it takes time for children to grow up and to develop grownup feelings.

In the meantime, though, you can support your child by giving them many, many opportunities to ask the questions they need to ask, as they figure out in their own way what is happening:

  • “Honey, remember when I told you last night Pop-Pop is really sick--he is so sick that even the Dr.’s don’t know what can make him better?  I’m wondering if you have any questions you want to ask me about that…”
    • “Yeah…if Pop-Pop can get so sick, will I get sick like that too?”

You can also help your child by giving them appropriate information when they ask their questions:

  • “How come Pop-Pop doesn’t want to play with me?  Doesn’t he like me anymore?”
    • “Pop-Pop always loves you in his heart, but his body isn’t strong enough for him to get out of bed and play with you now.”

And, I know this can be hard, but it isn’t unusual for a young child to be curious and want to know more about the most basic elements of injury, illness, or death.  Questions like these don’t mean that a child is emotionally callous.  Instead, they show that young children have a practical interest in how every part of life and death proceed.

  • “How does MaryJane go to bed with that big thing on her leg?”
  • “Why does Pop-Pop pee into a plastic bag?”
  • “What happens to someone’s body when they are dead?  What happens to their feet?  Their fingers?  Their eyes?”

If you are going to be making your first visit to see someone in a hospital or nursing home, or even if you are going to be taking your child to their first funeral, you might help prepare them by first taking them for a short walk around at a nearby hospital, nursing home, or funeral home.  A practice walk through lets your child smell the smells, see the different sights, ask the curious questions, and get an idea of what to expect when the time comes to make the real visit.  It also may give you the opportunity to be responsive to your child’s curiosity, worries, or concerns, without the full emotional weight of your own experience.

Finally, remember to trust that your child has what it takes to weather this difficult family experience.  Injuries, illness, and death are difficult, but also normal parts of life. Your child has the capacity to experience all kinds of difficult experiences, and to come through just fine, when they have your loving support and attention to their questions and concerns.