One of the most challenging aspects of parenting is discussing difficult news with your child not only when they’re very young but also when they’re a teen or young adult. It can be tough to know what to say about situations such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a mass casualty event like a terrorist attack or school shooting.
So how should you bring up and discuss difficult news — and help your child navigate this difficult time? Kallee Wilson, an associate marriage and family therapist and clinical director at New Haven, a residential treatment center in Utah, shared some insights.
Preparing For the Conversation
How you prepare for a tough conversation would depend on what you’re going to discuss, Wilson explained. For example, for a divorce, both parents should agree on how they’ll share the news and who will share it.
Whatever news you’re going to discuss, think about the environment your child will be in during your conversation.
“Some news could make your child feel emotionally or physically unsafe,” Wilson said. “For example, if you’re talking about divorce, they might feel anxious. If you’re talking about mass shootings, they could worry the same violent act could happen to them. It’s important to have the discussion in a safe place, such as the family home, and be ready to offer plenty of reassurance if needed.”
According to Wilson, it’s also helpful to have a support system already in place outside of you, the parent, before having the conversation. Teens and young adults may want to talk with someone else after talking to you. Whether it’s a therapist, friends, or other family members, identify who your child can turn to before you start the conversation.
Bringing Up the News
Wilson recommended having the discussion when there’s time and space to talk and your child can get the physical and emotional support they need — such as someone to listen to them or a reassuring hug — rather than when they might feel rushed or have plans that start soon, such as when they’re about to leave for the day or see a friend.
When you talk to your teen or young adult, Wilson recommended you be upfront, clear, and honest about what’s going on rather than walk on eggshells or start a casual conversation before getting to the point. You could start by saying, “I have an important topic to discuss. Can we talk for a few minutes?”
“Sometimes, parents like to save their kids from the truth, but kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and they can handle it,” Wilson said. “I think being as truthful as possible and letting them know it’s going to be OK will assuage their fears or worries.”
Empathy before strategy
It’s important to not only reassure your child but also to give them space to share what they feel, according to Wilson. Be careful about sharing your emotions, however. You should mainly focus on your child’s feelings. If they admit they’re sad, it’s OK to respond with “I’m sad too,” but don’t go into great detail, and bring the conversation back around to your teen or young adult.
Wilson also recommended you don’t just deliver or discuss bad news and leave it at that. In her experience, that’s hard for a child. It’s equally important to explain how you’re planning on dealing with the situation. For example, if you’re discussing a divorce, you could share the days and times your teen will spend with each parent, or where they’ll spend the upcoming school holidays.
Following Up With Your Child
Wilson advised parents to follow up after the discussion but to keep in mind a child might not want to talk about what you discussed until the next morning. If they need time to process the news, give them some time to do that.
The next day, you could bring up the topic again and say, “If I’m you, what we talked about yesterday would have been difficult to hear because it created confusion (and/or emotional hurt). I just wanted to check in to see how you’re doing.”
It’s important that you not only give them space and ask questions to gauge their feelings but also tell them it’s OK to feel scared or anxious.
If your child doesn’t want to talk about the situation, you can sit with them instead and follow up again later to see how they’re coping.
Special Considerations for Those Struggling With Mental Health Issues
If your son or daughter is struggling with a mental illness, Wilson said it’s important they have a support system that includes friends, family members, teachers, and other people normally in their circle as well as a therapist in case they need to talk to a mental health professional. If they don’t already have one, you can find a good therapist by using the Psychology Today search tool.
If your son or daughter does have a therapist, Wilson said to let that person know about the difficult conversation you’re going to have before you actually have it. Because a mental health professional has a different relationship with your child, they might have recommendations on how best to communicate the news.
Once you’ve had the conversation, Wilson said to let the therapist know. Depending on how your child responds to the news, you may need to get your son or daughter scheduled for an appointment as soon as possible. Listen to any recommendations the therapist has on how to help your child, such as starting group therapy or putting safety measures into place if there are concerns about self-harm or suicidal ideation.*
When To Contact a Therapist for Help
Your child may need professional help to process and deal with difficult news. Consider seeking a therapist if your son or daughter isn’t being open about how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing.
“If they’re turning to silence, isolation, withdrawal, self-harm, or any unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s a sign that they need professional help,” Wilson said.
Before your child engages in concerning behavior such as self-harm or substance abuse, there are usually warning signs. For example, abnormal behavioral changes are a sign that a teen or young adult needs some extra support.
Professional therapists can provide a safe space where your child can talk without worrying about what others might think or feel. They can also coach you about the best ways to support your son or daughter.
Treatment plans for teens and young adults who are struggling to cope are dependent on the context of their situation. For example, if the goal is to help a young teen cope with difficult news, a plan could involve individual and family therapy sessions that will help create a home environment where family members are open, honest, and supportive of one another.
If you need to find a therapist, you can use the Psychology Today search tool to locate one near you.
Helping Your Child Cope With Difficult News
It’s important that you be honest when discussing difficult news with your son or daughter. Remember, your approach may vary based on the specific situation or age of your child.
If you feel your child is not coping well with the news, it’s best to consult a professional therapist about next steps. This way, the entire family can move forward in the best way possible.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If you’re concerned your teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 — the Crisis Text Line — to speak with a trained crisis counselor right away.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!