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Breaking Bad News to Kids

Grandma is sick.  Uncle John and Aunt Katie are moving far away.  The hamster died.  These and other bad-news items need to be communicated to your kids . . . but how?  The answer is that it depends on the age and sensitivity of your kids.

Younger and more sensitive kids should be given basic information only.  Young children can’t grasp the particulars of medical problems, job-demands that require relocations, and death.  Sensitive children may be able to grasp the information, but they can be traumatized by it as well.  In both situations, provide baseline information only.  Then, respond to any questions your kids may have.  Honestly but briefly answer their questions.  Make sure they know that you are willing to answer any questions they have.  If they don’t ask many questions, then you may assume that they are satisfied with the volume of information that they have already been given.

As children mature, they typically have a greater capacity and need to understand the details of the world around them.  As with younger children, you should begin with delivering just the basic information.  Then, let your kids guide you in how much additional information they want.  Your answers to their questions can be far more detailed now, relative to the answers you gave when the kids were younger. 

Note that, at any age, kids may need to think about the bad news for a period of time before they can begin to form questions about the news.  Therefore, if your kids don’t ask you questions at the moment that you’re breaking the bad news to them, it may be several days or even several weeks before the questions are asked.  Make sure your kids know that, no matter when they are ready to ask their questions, you are ready to answer them.

What follows is a list of questions with two suggested answers to follow, one answer intended for younger or more sensitive kids and one answer intended for more mature kids.

Q: What kind of cancer does Grandma have? 

A: Grandma has cancer in her tummy.

A: Grandma has ovarian cancer.  That’s cancer of her ovaries.

Q: Is it painful for her? 

A: Not really, honey.  She’ll be more tired than in pain. 

A: She’ll be on pain medication that will hopefully address all the pain she may have otherwise had.

Q: Is she going to die? 

A: No.  Grandma is going to be with us for a long time to come.

A: The doctors think Grandma will be ok.  Because they found the cancer early, her chances of surviving it are quite high.

Q: Why can’t Uncle John do his new job from right here in town? 

A: Because his new job is in ___community__.

A:  I know that you’re familiar with telecommuting since your friend’s mom does that, but not all companies offer telecommuting, and not all jobs are well suited for telecommuting.  Uncle John’s company doesn’t offer telecommuting, and his job requires that he be first-person present anyway.  How can he repair a computer if he can’t be in the same room with it?

Q: When are they moving? 

A:  In a few weeks.

A:  They’re moving on May 14th

Q: How often will we get to see them once they move? 

A: We’ll see them all the time.  I bet we’ll see them every couple months or so.  Maybe not as often as we see them now, but still pretty often.

A: We hope to get together at least once a quarter.  Of course, it’s too soon to know for sure how things will work out, but we are too close not to keep in frequent contact one way or another.

Q: Will we visit them or will they come home for visits? 

A: We’ll do both, honey.

A: We plan to alternate.  One trip, they’ll come visit us; the next trip, we’ll go visit them.  Sometimes, we may meet somewhere too.

Q: Why did the hamster die? 

A: Because s/he was old, sweetie.

A:  I don’t know.  I think s/he was just very old, but I’m not sure.

Q: What is a normal life expectancy for a hamster? 

A: N/A-a younger child typically won’t ask this question.

A:  I thought you might ask that question, so I looked it up on the Internet.  It said that hamsters usually live 2-3 years.

Q: Did our hamster live to be that old? 

A: Yes.  Our hamster lived a good, long life.

A:  We don’t know for sure how old s/he was when we got him/her, but we’ve had him/her for 3 years,  so I’m sure s/he was very old.

Q: Did s/he suffer? 

A: No.  He just died peacefully in his sleep.

A: I don’t think so.  I didn’t see any signs that there had been distress.

Q: Who found him/her? 

A:  I did.

A:  I did . . . when I came home from work this evening.  As soon as I got home, I went to put water in his/her bottle, and I noticed that he was laying motionless on his/her cedar chips.  I picked him/her up, and s/he was limp.  That’s when I knew s/he was dead. 

Q: Was s/he already dead then (or dying then)? 

A: S/He’d already died; I think s/he wanted the privacy to pass away on his/her own.

A: S/He’d already died.  Since s/he was limp, I’d guess s/he hadn’t been dead long.  We know that animals typically like to go off on their own to die, I guess because it’s a private thing for them or something, so our hamster died when we weren’t  home to have his/her time of privacy.

Q: Do hamsters go to heaven?     

A: Yes, honey, all God’s creatures who are good go to heaven, and our hamster was a good boy/girl, wasn’t s/he?

A:  Different people believe different things about whether animals go to heaven.  No one knows for sure because none of us who are living have ever been to heaven before and so we can’t say who is there and who is not.  Still, I feel strongly that animals go to heaven.  Scientifically, we know that humans are a kind of animal . . . a part of the animal kingdom, not apart from it.  So, if humans go to heaven, so should other animals.  By breaking bad news to kids as indicated above, we can deliver the news in a way that is most appropriate for their circumstances.

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