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Discussing death and divorce with children

Honesty is the best policy in this potentially uncomfortable situation, says author Russell Friedman.
/ Source: TODAY

At some point during their children’s youth, parents will be forced to discuss difficult topics like death or divorce. Russell Friedman, co-author of the highly acclaimed book "When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal With Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses," was invited on “Today” to explain the best way to approach these conversations and the importance of honesty.

We teach children to read and write and do everything we can to prepare them for life, but we don't talk to them about or prepare them for loss. If a child loses a pet at an early age, sees a dead animal on the side of the road, or has a friend who loses a grandparent or parent, take that opportunity to discuss it with your child. We need to be introducing the topic of loss to them early. Over the past few weeks, the pope died and Terry Schiavo died, and children heard plenty about Sept. 11, and the Columbia space shuttle disaster. We should take everything that happens in the news and use it is a chance to talk about grief and loss with our children because they do witness it even when it isn't directly related to them, and they have questions. We need not be afraid to talk to them about it or we'll only create that same fear in them.

First and foremost, a good saying to remember when talking to your child is "Monkey see, monkey do." If parents act strong and show no emotion when talking to a child over a tough loss, the child will do the same. If a parent wonders why their child may not be reacting to a death in a normal or reactive way, they should think about how they've expressed themselves to the child.

We underestimate children. Children are emotionally smarter than adults because they're honest. As we get older we start to be protective of our feelings. Parents are afraid to talk about grief, because they don't talk naturally about it, and that is related in their body language very easily to a child. If you're comfortable talking to your child, then your child will be comfortable with the conversation.

Talking to your child about divorce
Every year over one million parents have to talk to their kids about divorce. For each parent, these discussions differ of course, but there are some good rules to follow. A good conversation may go something like this:"I have something sad to tell you. Mom and I are having a hard time, and you may have noticed something wasn't right between us, and you are right. I know this will be difficult for all of us. So we should talk about it openly together and about what we're both feeling."

Tips for conducting a conversation about divorce or death
Adults speak first and be honest
Tell your child the truth about how you feel. They should know you feel sad over the loss and that you are aware things will be difficult. This way the child has the go-ahead to feel the same things. As hard as it is to grieve and comfort your child, it's so important to not be afraid to show your feelings as you explain to them what is going on.

Use age appropriate language and details
A five-year-old and ten-year-old understand very different things and have different levels of maturity. Follow their questioning before offering certain details that may be too much information. A young child will not understand about Daddy having an affair — that is more information than the child needs. If the child asks, you can always offer more information. If they are older or a teenager, they may have more questions and want more details. Be honest, but remember what is appropriate for the age of the child or they will not comprehend the situation. And remember to talk to your children individually — each of your children has a unique relationship to the loss or event. In the case of talking about a death, stay away from euphemisms. The biggest mistake a parent can make when talking about death to a young child is to say someone has "gone to sleep for good now." That only confuses a child and most likely a child will then be terrified of going to sleep.

Be patientDon't force them to talk if they're not ready. Have the conversation with them no matter what, but if they're not ready to talk about how they feel yet, it's important not to force them. You can always ask the child at another time if they're ready to talk, but don't push. If you're honest with your child, they'll be honest with you when they're ready.

Never say "don't feel scared" or "don't feel sad"Sadness and fear are the two most normal feelings attached to loss of any kind and are essential to being human — allow your child that, don't discourage it or they'll keep feelings bottled inside.

Remember feelings of loss change over timeTelling a child about divorce or death when they're four years old may be simpler than one thinks, and a lot of times that is because they don't often comprehend the entire gravity of the situation at that moment. That conversation is only seen and heard in that moment. That will change over time and a parent needs to be aware that they should keep those lines of communication open as time goes on. Parents should recognize their children will feel differently about the feeling of loss in days, weeks and years to come. With the passing of time, a parent should discuss openly with the child how they're feeling at that time. Feelings will constantly change and new events will cause the feelings again.

Parents need to be honest
The best way to have a conversation with your child about death is to talk about your personal feelings and your relationship with the person who died. It's about the relationship with the person who is gone, not about the death. So a parent may say, "It's very sad that granddad is gone now. My relationship with him was so wonderful, he warmed my heart. I know he always made you happy, too. It's very sad that he isn't with us any longer and I'm really going to miss him. We can always remember what a great relationship we had with him and share stories with each other about him." A parent should always shift the conversation to the relationship rather than the death, otherwise the child gets stuck on the death.

Are parents perhaps more afraid than necessary about discussing these tough subjects?
Yes, but that's natural. But a parent should remember that being afraid of having the conversation is also being afraid of grief. Many people don't want to talk about sad things, but all that does for the child is make them afraid of discussing it, too. Children need to grieve correctly and if a parent acts afraid to talk about these tough topics, then a child will also act afraid of both discussing it and feeling natural feelings about it. If a parent acts as if there is an elephant in the room, the child will always act that way too and be afraid to talk about it. And remember, children are very emotionally smart, they are not stupid. A parent should recognize that if they are afraid of talking about their feelings about something, the child will pick up on that and learn from that.

Bottom line, the most important thing to remember when talking to kids about serious topics is to be honest. Always tell the truth, about how you're feeling and about how the situation can affect all of you. Always let the child see your emotions so they know it's OK to feel, too. Not talking about it makes it a taboo subject, and that will never help them. Don't tell them, "Don't feel bad." That gives them a conflicting message. Remember to be communicative and honest as time goes on, because there will be different degrees of feelings over the event as the years go on. If you're communicating honestly, you can never hurt your child.