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The Best Ways to Break Bad News to a Child: Top Expert Tips

Blog The Best Ways to Break Bad News to a Child: Top Expert Tips

“The most important thing to know is that you never want to lie to your child, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with information they aren’t ready for,” explains Dr. Ann Lagges, psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.


Parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. And while most things can be figured out through trial and error, there are some issues that are not so easy to determine. A key example is how to break bad news to your children. Whether it’s a medical diagnosis, death of a family member or impending move, these talks are never easy, but they are necessary.

“The most important thing to know is that you never want to lie to your child, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with information they aren’t ready for,” explains Dr. Ann Lagges, psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “They do not need every bit of information you have. Only tell them what they need to know, based on what is appropriate for their age.”

When telling a child about a non-life threatening diagnosis, such as ADHD or dyslexia, you should frame this as a positive. Remind your child of the problem they are currently facing, such as difficulty paying attention or reading, and share the good news – their struggles have been identified, and there are treatment options to help them overcome these challenges.

For a medical diagnosis, such as cancer, children need to understand what will happen each step of the way, with information given close to the actual experience to prevent unnecessary worry or fears.

Age appropriateness is important. Young children should understand if a medicine will make them sick or cause their hair to fall out. Older children may want to understand their diagnosis and treatment in detail. Failure to provide your child with this information can be traumatizing.

If a parent does not inform their child, not only will the child become fearful, but the parent may also lose the child’s trust as the child may begin to wonder what else their parents know that they are not sharing.

An ailing or dying family member also presents a challenge, especially for young children under the age of seven or eight who do not understand death. For these children, Dr. Lagges advises that you not use the words “went to sleep” because, while they may not understand the word death, they do understand sleep. It is important not to let the child think they can wake the person or to fear going to sleep themselves.

As parents repeatedly share age-appropriate information, limiting the details, about their family member, children will come to understand the concept. For teenagers, involve them in decisions, such as visits to their ailing or dying family member. Speak to them honestly about the situation, but let them choose. They will be angry if a parent makes that choice for them.

Regardless of the situation, breaking bad news to children should always be handled with care. “Honesty is key,” Dr. Lagges reminds parents. “Tell them what they need to know, and, if you aren’t sure if they understood, ask them to repeat it back to you so you can correct any misinformation. Be prepared to answer questions and provide additional, age-appropriate information. Continue to check in with your child to see how they are processing the news and to help them overcome any hurdles they may have to learning about and understanding the bad news.”

-- By Gia Miller

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