It’s been a hard week and it’s only Wednesday. But it got me thinking about those difficult conversations many people avoid having with children and the trauma hiding in plain sight. Parents and educators alike are often at a loss for how to talk to children about things like birth, death, illness, and mental health. The result is we don’t talk to them at all. That must stop.
I started the week with a phone call from a friend. Her father passed suddenly and unexpectedly. This was after losing another family member from a lingering illness the year before. A few days later, on a walk with my daughter, we witnessed a car hit a dog within feet of us. I can still here the dogs screams of pain. This morning I held a sweet 5-year-old struggling to comprehend a parent’s absence due to addiction and mental illness. Like I said, its been a hard week. With a support system of friends and family to talk to and years of life experience, I know how to navigate some of these difficult situations. Kids are often at a complete loss and without adults stepping in to talk to them, children are left drowning in big emotions that cause them to act out. The result can be complex trauma from the pile up of unresolved feelings.
So how do we start the conversation. Kids aren’t that different from adults. They want honesty. They want answers in words they can understand. And most importantly, they want support and assurance that their feelings are valid.
I’m often asked how honest should I be with my child. You should be 100% honest, but within the limits of their vocabulary and life experience. Honesty is not about overwhelming a child with information. For example, a child dealing with death for the first time doesn’t need the entire existential lecture on dying. They do understand that things break and sometimes they can’t be fixed. Answer questions simply and follow your child’s lead. If they ask another question, answer it, if they say ok and go back to playing, let them play.
Emotional support is more than just saying you understand. The fact is you may not understand. We all feel and experience life in our own way and in our own time. Children are no different. Adults often need time to understand big emotions, and we have years of experience to help us. How can we expect children, even teenagers, to tell us how they feel right now when they have no clue? Labeling your feelings and modeling self-care is the first step in teaching children to understand their emotions. Next be careful not to project your feelings onto your child. If they want to play, don’t keep asking them if they are sad. I think of that scene in Steel Magnolias after the funeral, “Here, hit Weezer…” it goes from I’m fine, to I’m so sad, to I’m angry, and finally dissolving into laughter. Every emotion is present and valid. Sally Fields character must go through it all as she comes to terms with the loss of her daughter. Laughing through tears is ok. Your child laughing through your tears is ok too. Give them the time to process and respect their emotional response.
Death and Dying
When a child experiences death for the first time, they often ask what is dying. The simple answer is death is when a person’s body is broken beyond repair. The next question is often what broke. Again, be honest, but use simple terms. Was their heart not working? Was it an accident? Be clear and concise but be honest.
As children mature, the questions get more complex. They ask about themselves and wonder if it will happen to them. While it’s tempting to say they are young and healthy, and children don’t have to worry about death, I know a sweet 8-year-old boy still reeling from a brainstem tumor 2 years after removal. He will tell you otherwise. Re-focus your child on the present. They are healthy right now. You go to the doctor and get checkups and flu shots. You can talk about all the ways you take care of your body in the present. But yes, one day their body won’t be fixable either. That is a hard reality for parents to face, but denial doesn’t protect your child from life. Be honest but don’t dwell on it. Refocus the conversation. You may be surprised how quickly children accept a simple answer.
Where Do Babies Come From
Sex education needs to start early. There, I said it. Start simple, be honest, and keep the conversation going. Sex and sexuality are a natural part of human existence. For young children it starts with using proper names for body parts. Conception is when an egg is fertilized (you don’t need to explain the mechanics to a 3-year-old). Babies grow in a uterus; they are born. They make a lot of noise. Notice I didn’t say when a mommy and daddy get married and really love each other they make a baby. Children make their way into this world in many ways. When we tell them the only way babies are born is between loving, married, heterosexuals we invalidate millions of children’s very existence. My sister is adopted. She was not conceived that way and yet she is still very a much loved and wanted member of our family. To this day I must stop people who say things like “real parents” or “real sister”. We are her real family. I know blended families and birth and adopted families who share in a child’s life. I also know several homosexual couples who have built amazing families through adoption of older children and invitro. These families are every bit as real and filled with love.
If you have that precocious child who asks about the mechanics. Tell them. They will be grossed out. You might be embarrassed for life. But I promise you both will survive. And then tell them about adoption. Tell them about stepparents. Talk about grandparents and aunts and uncles who raise children. Teach your child that family is about love above all else.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
This one hits close to home. My marriage ended because of mental health issues. I have one daughter with anxiety. I have a sister with bipolar disorder. Depression runs in my family. I know what it’s like to be the spouse, parent, child, sister, and friend of someone with chronic mental illness. It is estimated that nearly half of all adults in America will experience a mental illness of some sort during their lifetime. Many will not get help due to lack of access, stigma, or the illness itself.
Many individuals who experience mental illness in their lifetime seek treatment, having meaningful relationships, and are wonderful parents and partners. But even those who are managing their mental illness have bumps in the road and kids have questions. Stick to the formula. Be honest. Use simple language that is age appropriate. Validate their feelings and provide emotional support.
Mental illness (I’m including addiction) is an illness. Something isn’t working right. Sometimes it can be fixed, sometimes they need to learn a new way to do something, but it’s always a journey. Depression is one of the hardest for kids to comprehend. A parent whose heart was filled to bursting with love now can’t get out of bed. Its hard not to internalize those feelings and take ownership of them. People with mental illness often use language that places blame on those around them. This is when support is so important. Model for children how you separate someone’s actions and feelings from the disease. You can say things like the illness is in charge right now, but they are working on getting back in charge by doing- therapy, medication, hospitalization, etc. Don’t diminish a child’s anger caused by the illness by saying things like, “But you love them”. In this moment they are angry or hurt or sad. I know I was. Feelings are real and valid and must be expressed in a productive way. Saying you’re angry is ok. Hitting or saying you hate someone is not. By supporting their very real emotions you are teaching your child about healthy boundaries. They learn to speak up and say what is not ok. They learn to respect other’s boundaries by responding in healthy ways.
If someone in your life is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, make sure you and your children have healthy and safe boundaries. You can’t love someone well who has a mental illness or substance abuse problem. You wouldn’t try to love them well after a heart attack. If they are not actively seeking help from licensed professionals, they are not promoting a healthy or safe environment. Find a therapist of your own, contact ALANON, go stay with family, but create a safe and healthy space for you and your children.
I could write a novel on trauma and we are just beginning to understand the edges of what it does to the human condition. Trauma is the unseen and lingering effects of harm. Trauma can come from the most benevolent of places. I can still see my tiny baby sister with stitches in her face and splints on her arms after reconstructive surgery. It had to be done; we were helping her. She didn’t know that; it was traumatic.
Trauma is real. Sometimes it festers for years.
We recognize certain types of trauma. We understand that abuse, neglect, natural disaster, car accidents, those are all traumatic. But things like prolonged medical treatment or a single terrifying vaccine event can cause trauma. Bullying can cause trauma. Feeling ignored because a parent is never present can cause trauma. Stress can cause trauma.
All the events I’ve written about this week are traumatic. I know that hearing that dog’s cries of pain affected me deeply. It haunted me all night and I had to go back the next day to see if he was ok. I’m happy to report Leo is coming home today. He has a broken nose, needed surgery to repair a lip avulsion, and got a few stitches in his front leg. I acted to deal with the trauma in a healthy and positive way. Kids need to see that modeled from you. Self-care is the most loving gift you can ever give your child. It ensures that you are a present and healthy adult. It models for them how to deal with difficult situations. It teaches them to love themselves.
So, talk to your kids. Narrate your own feelings and decision making as you process difficult situations. Answer their questions honestly and simply. Follow their lead and drop it when they say they are finished. Be sure to check back in on them but resist the urge to dive deep if they aren’t ready. When they do share emotions, help them find the words to express those feelings. Model self-care and talk them through their own from of self-care.
Above all else, be present. Listen. Believe them. Talk to your children about life.