By Marie Holmes
As I scurried down the street towards my son’s school—his beloved school, where he’d been in the same class as his best friend from kindergarten through 5th grade—my stomach clenched with the knowledge that I was about to deliver a devastating blow: he’d be starting at a new school in September.
I was carrying a pack of peanut butter cups, his favorite, in the hopes that it would soften the impact somehow.
He stepped out onto the sidewalk and saw me right away, waving my hand.
“What are you doing here?”
He pointed to the peanut butter cups. “And why do you have those?”
“I wanted to talk to you about something,” I said, attempting to feign a calm I didn’t feel at all.
“What happened? Did somebody die?”
“No, no! Everything’s fine,” I said. This wasn’t going well, and I hadn’t even gotten to the bad part yet.
I recently spoke with Dr. Sarah Bren, a child and family psychologist practicing in Pelham, New York, about my experience breaking bad news to my son, and some things to keep in mind when your turn comes.
Think through the timing.
If you’re like me, dread makes you want to put this off for as long as possible. Try to fight this instinct. Kids often sense that something is going on well before adults think they do.
“Kids are sensitively attuned to their environment,” says Dr. Bren. If you’re feeling pain or stress or anxiety, your kids are likely picking up that something is amiss, no matter how much effort you’re putting into acting otherwise.
The problem here is that while they’re in tune with your emotions, kids’ interpretive abilities are limited by their age.
Don’t “leave a lot of blanks for kids to fill in by themselves,” Dr. Bren advises, “because it just tends to go dark.”
It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to be egocentric, and they’re likely to fill in those blanks with self-blame (‘Mommy was crying because I was bad’ ) or magical thinking (‘The dog died because I slammed the door.’) You want to get in there as quickly as possible with accurate information to reassure them that they aren’t the cause of the hardship.
On the other hand, if something is months out and you think anxiety will build, “you can shorten that window,” says Dr. Bren. “You don’t have to talk about it immediately.”
In our case, we decided to wait until there were only a few weeks left in the school year. Enough time to say goodbye, but less time to anxiously anticipate something that wouldn’t actually happen until September.
Set the stage.
Once you’ve determined that it’s go time, pick an hour and a place that will grant your child some privacy and the opportunity to be by themselves for a while, should they feel the need. Dr. Bren advises choosing a “calm, connected moment.”
The advantage of telling my son about switching schools that afternoon was that he wouldn’t have to compete for attention with his little sister. He had my full focus.
I could have tried a different strategy, folding the news into normal routines. A regular walk together, for example, might provide an opportunity. This way we might’ve avoided his shock at seeing me when he wasn’t expecting me, and the way his brain went directly to the worst possible reasons I might be there.
Of course, no set-up is perfect, and there comes a point when you just have to pull off the band-aid and simply be there to absorb their pain.
Rehearse, and be ready for questions.
A death or a move may not need much exposition, but other kinds of news do. I worked with my son’s teacher and my partner to figure out a way to explain why we’d decided to move him—starting with how much the teachers at the new school wanted him to be there.
Be ready to take questions, and try to fill in those blanks before your kid’s imagination does it for you. “We want to be the first line of information for them,” explains Dr. Bren. “Then we actually have some say in what they hear and how they hear it, and how safe they feel while they’re hearing it.”
If they don’t need to know all of the details, because of their age or the situation, ask them what questions they have and respond to these with developmentally appropriate information.
“As hard as it can be to have these conversations with our kids,” says Dr. Bren, “It’s always better coming from us.”
Follow their lead, and remind them how strong they are.
Part of your work is to contain their feelings and let them know it’s okay to be upset. Another part is letting them know that you believe they have the ability to cope with this hardship.
While my instinct, when I saw how upset my son was, was to reassure him that he would still be able to see all his friends, it may not be helpful to offer this kind of reassurance to someone who’s still feeling startled. Rather than trying to convince them that things may not be as bad as they seem—even when this is true—Dr. Bren suggests “amplifying their strength and your trust in their strength.”
On the other hand, if they’re not as upset as you anticipated, there’s no need to paint the skies dark. Broach the topic again when the time is right, and let them know you’re there for them and open to answering questions.
You can use the same strategy when kids say they want to be alone. Allow them their privacy, but continue to remind them of your loving, nonjudgmental presence.
In our case, this involved me nervously pacing around the apartment for a while before knocking, again, on my son’s door to ask if he wanted to talk. Eventually, he did.
Now, one year later, my son is happily adjusted to his new school. The knowledge we both take with us moving forward is that when something seems impossible, we’re capable of doing it anyway.
And he also knows that when I come to pick him up after softball practice with a snack in my hands, it’s not because I’m about to deliver a blow and want to soften it, but because I know he’s going to be hungry.
Marie Holmes is a contributing writer for Motherwell. She lives in New York City with her wife and their two children. Peanut butter cups are a favorite candy of Marie and both of her kids. You can find her on Twitter at @holmes_marie.
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