My 10-year-old son is extremely sensitive and caring. The downside of this is that he can’t handle the news of someone who is ill or dying (or has passed.) He will obsess about it for days/weeks. The last time a relative was in the hospital with a serious illness, a teacher called me in the middle of the day saying my son was crying in the corner of the classroom. A close relative has cancer. At this point, all I have told my son is that “this relative is sick and it will take a few months for them to get better.” My son is handling this information just fine, but I don’t want to tell him any more for fear it will devastate him. We’ve also just had a death in the family, and I am hiding it from my son because there is no way to soften the blow. I feel comfortable talking to my children about illness and death, but how can I help my son learn to cope with the news better? I feel like I need to hide information from him at times because I can’t let it disrupt his life every time, but it is a part of life, and he needs to learn how to deal with it. Any help or advice would be appreciated.
Anonymous, in PA
First off, I’m sorry for all the suffering in your extended family recently, this is hard for anyone.
I hear your very valid concerns that your ten c old has a great deal of empathy and will suffer alongside anyone in pain. That empathy can cause him pain, but can also give him great strength and joy as he learns to manage it. Your job as a parent is to help him find the tools and skills he needs to live with it.
Before I answer your excellent question I want to give you an observation.
Lying to your son will probably make his problem worse.
Hiding someone’s death or minimizing the illness someone is suffering is likely to add worry on top of anxiety. Three things to consider:
- He may decide that you are not telling him how bad things are, and he will assume the worst.
- Minimizing teaches him not to trust you about bad news, and he needs to trust you if he is going to learn to handle bad news.
- Lying – something you’ve probably said is bad – tells him that you believe he can’t handle the truth. He needs your confidence that he can handle it in order to learn resilience.
So, as hard as it is, I’m encouraging you to level with him.
On to your actual question – “How can I help my son to learn to cope with the news better?”
Some time before you share bad news:
- Ask your son to create a Feel Better list. This is a list of coping strategies that calm him when he is sad or scared. The longer the list, the better! He might need some suggestions:
- Listening to certain music.
- Playing particular games.
- Physical activity.
- Hugging a parent.
- Doing a craft.
- Figuring out a puzzle.
- Etc. etc. etc…
- Talk to your son about his troubles in the past with sad news. Ask him what would help!
- Suggest that he make a Worry Box or give his worries to you to “hold” while he is in school
When you have bad news to share:
- Give the news in one sentence. Too much prep will likely stress him out, and you won’t be sure what he heard.
- Answer the questions he asks. Don’t give more information than he asks for – he will ask for more when he is ready.
- Ask how he feels. Listen to the answers without trying to change his mind or “fix” it.
- Validate his feelings. Use his actual words. “I hear that you are terrified.” “I understand that you wish this wasn’t happening.” “You don’t know what to do.”
- Remind him of his coping strategies (above).
- Plan another time to talk. Let him tell you when he wants you to check in about this next.
I know you worry for your son’s sensitivity. The good news, that same empathy will probably push him to do great good as an adult!
Parents, how do you handle your kids’ difficulty with bad news?