Sometimes, life is JUST HARD. PERIOD. Every now and then, panicking parents ask me the same question, “How do I tell my children…?” There is a deep sense of vulnerability and powerlessness on the internet that parents can no longer fake to be the “superhero” who healed the boo-boo with a magic kiss or to bribe their children way out of what the unpredictable future mean to us.
Neither can I.
It is not as much about WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. The truth is that we live in a broken world with many many things out of our control. We cannot shield our children from having their hearts broken. They will, at some point, in their lives experience grief and losses, whether it is deaths, separations, illnesses, losses, or failures. It is our job, as the adults, to guide them through these challenges in lives. Alternatively, you can learn to make good use of these moments to connect with your children. You can use these crucial moments to train an emotionally intelligent child. Below are Seven Simple Steps to Help You Connect with Your Child While Sharing Bad News: (SPOILER ALERT! There will be many examples quoted from the movie Inside Out)
- Validating Emotions
Believe it or not. This is harder than you think.
When you are trying to cheer your children up, do you act more like Joy in the video below or are you more like Sadness? Joy tries to cheer Bing Bong up by making funny faces, and discouraging Bing Bong to feel his feelings. On the contrary, Sadness validated Bing Bong’s sadness. She let him feel! She confirmed how sad that is. For most parents, it is FAR more natural to act like Joy in the video.
2. Showing Compassion
Do you remember the last time when others showed you compassion? I have asked this questions to parents many times and surprisingly, I got a lot of long pauses. We cannot give what we do not have. Joy in the video sounded like a very fun friend, but she lacked that compassion to Bing Bong immediately after he had received some very bad news. She was so busy rushing him to move on which actually ended up taking longer for him to process his emotions (in his case, crying more candy). On the other hand, Sadness showed him kindness and compassion when he needed the time to grieve.
3. Healthy and Safe Touch
Do you remember what happened before Bing Bong was fine? He cried on Sadness’s shoulders! Healthy and Safe Touch work wonders in connecting with your child in times of hardships. Oxytocin is a type of euphoric neurotransmitters which is released to the brain when touching is involved (as well as several other means). Other than the instrumental care (such as food, rides, clothes and shelter), healthy affectionate touch is one of the best things you can give your children when they are distressed.
What if my child does not like to be touched? That’s a great question. Touch is a basic, human needs (not wants, not desires, it’s a need! For more information, please feel free to research on Harlow’s study) You may want to be more strategic about it (which would require much lengthy discussion on the subject). There are also helpful materials on the website of TCU Child Development Institute on Healthy Touch.
4. Your Presence
Your presence of your undivided attention is one of the most priceless and costly things you can give to your children in times of distress. I know, dads and moms, you are also under a lot of stress too! You might be scared, angry and hurt, too. However, if you are full of your own agendas and disturbances from your own crisis (like Joy), you are not helping your children move on! Sadness set aside her sadness and fear about not getting back to the headquarter. Instead, she spent the precious time reminiscing with Bing Bong about his good times with Riley. T.H.A.T. is exactly what your child needs from you. Not just the sitting together, but your willingness to pay attention to what your child cares about.
Empathy is, dare I say, EVEN HARDER than validating emotions. It is one step further than showing compassion and giving your presence. Because you are trying to be in their shoes (and not your adult size shoes) to feel what they are feeling. You actually need to… FEEL. Dr. Brene Brown does such an amazing job explaining Empathy in the video below.
6. Giving them a VOICE
Giving them a voice is like asking the simple, but powerful question, “What do you need?” They may answer you a bubble bath, ice cream, Six Flags trip or a prayer. You can save yourselves so much dramas if you are parenting teenagers, if you would ask them this question. They sometimes may not know what they need, but that’s why this is a great way of building their resilience as an individual. If they do not learn this skill, they are so much more likely to try and numb their emotions. I talked to many people with addictive patterns in their lives with a root of numbing their emotions. Teaching them how to problem-solve, or cope with emotions in healthy ways will save you and your children from so many more heartbreaks in the future.
7. Gentle Guidance (if needed)
Guidance is what most parents begin with … and sometimes, not so gentle. This is sometimes what they needed the least if it is done in a not-so-gentle-way. Frankly speaking, if you really did the last 6 steps first (especially #6), maybe the guidance part is not needed at the moment of grief and sadness. When you give them a voice, they already got what they needed in times of the bad news in the short run. They already felt so connected and loved that they don’t need you to “fix” them.
The gentle guidance, however, can be helpful in the long run. This is the prime time to instill core values of your family, such as Hope and Courage. For most of the families of faith with whom I work, this is a great time to share your favorite Scriptures with them and share how your personal God brought you through hardships in your life. Your testimony can be far more powerful in their healing process as well as their journey to connect with you.
It also may come in handy, if your child said they need to hurt themselves to show how upset they are or they need to stay up all night to grieve. Your gentle guidance can become truly what they needed at the moment.
Certainly, if your children are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, you may want to seek for professionals’ help. Your counselor might be a great support for you to process your own grief and losses as well. Again, you cannot give your children what you do not have. Seeking help is a very courageous step for yourself and your family.