How to Talk with Kids about Pain

Think about a week when you were on an emotional roller coaster.  Now imagine your kids on the same ride.

Kids live rich emotional lives; they feel as deeply as adults.  However, kids do not have the skills to solve adult problems.

Here are some ideas that will help your kids when a family member is in pain–whether it’s a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle.

Keep their love cups full. Remind kids how much you love them, and tell them in the way that works best. For some kids it’s hearing, “I love you.” Ask, “How many times would you like me to tell you today I love you?” Other ways of saying I love you include hugs, little gifts, a note packed with the lunch or with the nice little things you do for them.

Tell them it’s not their fault. Children are like the sun, and it’s not just because they bring light into our lives; they also think the universe revolves around them. Assume they will make your loved one’s pain about them. Head this off. “Grandpa’s illness has nothing to do with anything you said or did.” Break any potential link you child may make between a regretful encounter and the illness. “You felt bad when you broke the vase, but it has nothing to do with grandma’s fall.”

Be the adult, and let the kids be kids. Offer strong adult leadership with optimism about your ability to handle whatever happens. Here’s a line you can repeat to yourself and your kids even if you don’t believe it at first: “Every problem has a solution, and we’ll find it.” Reassure the kids that the adults will solve the adult problems. Their job is to be a kid.

Pay attention. Kids want and need your attention; they need it even more during a crisis. They prefer your warm love, but they’ll take disapproval over indifference. Even though more people are getting slices of your attention pie, giving your kids 3 to 10 minutes of your undivided attention, may avoid hours of annoying behavior.

Avoid secrets. It just doesn’t work.  If you try to hide the truth, kids will often make up a story that’s worse than the reality.  Tell them as much of the truth as you’re ready to share with words that are appropriate for their developmental level.  If you’re not ready to talk, say, “Mommy and Daddy are working through an adult problem, and we’ll get through it.”

Be approachable, and invite questions.    Here are the three kinds of questions:

  • You know the answer. Answer their question they ask, then answer the question your  child is always asking, “What does this mean for me?  Who will take care of me?”
  • No one knows the answer.  The best response to an unanswerable question is often, “What do you think?” If you simply don’t know how to respond, you can say, “That’s a good question. Let me think about it and get back to you.”
  • Someone knows the answer but you don’t. These are often questions about how the body works. Say, “That’s a great question. Let’s find out together.” I believe that children who avoid questions that make their parents squirm grow up to be adults who avoid asking question with their doctors.

Let them have and express their feelings. Kids of all ages get glad, mad, sad, and scared. Your emotional coaching—helping the kids identify their feelings and acting on them—is tremendously helpful. If kids can’t tell you how they’re feeling, play the guessing game. “Let me guess. Are you mad?” Do not worry about implanting feelings they don’t have. It doesn’t happen.

Know that these conversations will often emerge on their own timetable, and that’s often in the car. Be ready to listen.

Remember this tip: Your child’s behavior is a clue.  If they’re acting out, consider the possibility they’re acting as the family’s emotional thermostat, reading out the emotional temperature in the house.   

Remind kids when it’s not about them. You can warn your kids that you might not be at your parenting best. If you snap at them, offer an apology, even if it’s days or weeks later. If kids ask, “Are you mad at me?” say, “No. I’m grumpy today. It has nothing to do with anything you did or said.”

Identify a safe adult the kids can call. Maybe it’s a school counselor, a teacher, or one of your friends. Everyone needs someone to talk to, and you might not be available. Or maybe they want to talk about you!

Remember your kids are watching you. Your actions—not your words—are like their how-to lesson plans. You’re showing them by example how to bounce back from life’s adversities. The more skilled you are at remaining optimistic and demonstrating resilience, the better off your kids will be for a lifetime.

Summary: How to talk to kids

  • Keep their love cups full.
  • Remind them it’s not their fault.
  • Be the adult and let the kids be kids
  • Avoid secrets and invite questions.
  • Your kids are watching.
© 2015. Vicki Rackner MD.  All rights reserved.