Telling a child about a parent's severe injury is a difficult, but necessary first step toward helping the child cope with the adjustment. Often children will sense something is wrong and will become frightened if they don't know what has happened. How you talk with your child about a parent's injury will depend on the child's age and ability to understand the injury, your own emotional state and the emotional and mental state of the injured parent.
When to tell your child
There may be no perfect time to tell your child what happened to the injured parent, but you can time your talk so it goes as smoothly as possible. It's best if you, the parent, break the news of the injury to your child. Your child will feel comforted by your presence and may have questions that only you can answer. The following are some tips for finding the right time to talk with your child:
- Talk with your child as soon as possible after the injury has occurred. It's natural to want to protect children by withholding bad news. But children can tell from the behavior of the adults in their lives that something has happened and will become anxious.
- Explain what happened as soon as you can talk about it. Children will take cues about how to feel from your behavior. If you are distraught, they will become frightened and upset. If you talk calmly about the parent's injury, your children will be better able to absorb and process the news.
- Make sure that you'll be able to give your full attention. Choose a time when you're unlikely to be interrupted or distracted. Give your child time to ask questions.
- Plan to talk when you both will have time to be together. It's not a good idea to break the news right before school or before you or your child are heading out for an activity. Depending on your child's age, he or she may not even want to talk after learning the news. Even so, your child will be comforted knowing that you are there.
What to say
How much you reveal about the parent's injury will depend on your child's age. But no matter how old your child is, it's important to be truthful and open about the injury and how things will change because of it.
- Be honest and open about the injury. You may hope to protect your child by hiding the truth, but this is bound to create problems. If your child doesn't know what is wrong, his or her imagination may take over and create uneasy and frightening feelings and ideas. The truth will allow your child to begin the process of coping with the parent's injury.
- Use language your child can understand. A toddler will grasp that mommy or daddy was hurt and will need to use a special chair to move around, while a teenager is old enough to hear details about a spinal cord injury. Follow your child's cues when discussing the injury. Be sure not to force details on a child who isn't ready to hear them.
- Keep your explanations simple and brief for young children. Toddlers through preschoolers have short attention spans. Tell your child what happened and be prepared to move onto something else when your child loses interest. ("Daddy got very hurt in the war. Doctors are helping him to get better now.")
- Use props for young children. Children 6 years old or younger may find it helpful if you use a doll or puppet to show where the parent is injured.
- Tell your child what is being done for the parent. Without glossing over the severity of the injury, you can still reassure your child by talking about all of the ways the parent is being cared for.
- Give children as much information as they want. Some children will want to know everything there is to know about the parent's injury. Others will feel overwhelmed if they are given too much information.
- Talk about how things will change, but focus on what will stay the same. Most children will worry about how the injury will affect their own lives. If the parent will need a wheelchair to get around, explain that the injured parent won't walk the same way as before the injury, but will still be able to play some games.
- Let your child know how you feel, but shield your child from very strong emotions. It's OK to let your child know that you are sad. In fact, describing your own emotions will help children identify their own feelings. If you feel yourself becoming overly emotional, try not to let your child see. A child can be frightened and distressed to see a parent crying uncontrollably or becoming very angry.
- Give your child comfort. Children of all ages worry about their own safety and security, and may worry about who will take care of them now that one parent is in the hospital. Name all of the people who will be around to help care for them and keep them safe, including the other parent, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends.
- Arrange for phone calls with the injured parent, if possible. Hearing the parent's voice can be reassuring to a child. It will also help prepare the child for when it's possible to see the parent.
How your child may react
As someone who knows your child best, you should be able to tell how well he or she is handling news of the injury. Here are some common signs of stress at different ages. If the signs don't go away on their own after a few weeks, consider seeking out counseling for your child.
- Toddlers and preschoolers may react with clinginess and fear of separation. Often, they return to old habits and behavior - a potty-trained toddler may wet the bed at night or a preschooler may start sucking his or her thumb. Younger children may express new fears or have nightmares.
- School-age children may have problems with school, difficulties paying attention or have physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. They may exhibit aggressive behavior or have fears that something bad will happen to other loved ones.
- Teenagers may also have problems with school or have difficulty paying attention. Some teenagers exhibit risk-taking behavior or become depressed and withdraw from family and friends.
What you can do
- Tell your child that it's normal to feel angry or sad about what happened. Children may be afraid to express their emotions about the parent's injury. They may sense that you would rather not talk about it and, as a result, may feel confused and doubtful about their own feelings.
- Gently draw out your children if they seem withdrawn. If you sense that children aren't coping well, ask what they are worried about and what frightens them. Once their concerns are out in the open, you can deal with them.
- Encourage your child to express feelings through drawing, playing or writing. Very young children may have difficulty talking about their feelings. Drawing pictures about how they feel or engaging in pretend play can serve as outlets for strong emotions.
- Keep routines the same. If you have a special bedtime ritual or always go out for pizza on Friday nights, continue to do these things. If your child is staying with a friend or adult while you are with your injured service member, write down your child's routines and ask the caregiver to follow them. Routine can be greatly comforting to children.
- Turn off the news. Shield children from media coverage of the war.
- Answer questions with honesty and openness. Younger children, especially, may ask the same questions over and over. Answer your child's questions with patience, even if you've answered the same question more than once.
- Be there for your child. When your child wants to talk, stop what you're doing and give your full attention. Provide lots of cuddling and encouragement.
- Offer to stay in your children's room if they are having nightmares or are afraid. Let your children know that you are there for them.
- Let children take the lead in talking about the injury. Be there for your child, but don't force conversations about your child's feelings. It's usually best to let children know that a topic is open for discussion and respond to their questions
- Allow your child to email, write letters and telephone the injured parent. This is another opportunity to maintain a connection with the injured parent. It will allow your child to ask the parent questions and help the parent stay involved in the child's life.
Talking with a child about a parent's severe injury will not be a conversation that happens only once. Circumstances will change and questions will arise during different phases of the treatment - the fitting for a prosthesis, surgeries, rehabilitation - and beyond. By keeping the conversation open throughout the service member's recovery, your child will feel part of the process and better able to cope with the changes.