Not quite sure how to answer your child’s questions about the more troubling side of life? Psychologist Dr Mandy Bryon gives her tips. From family emergencies to scary news stories, sometimes we all need advice on what to say. Our guide will help you find the right words
Menacing masks, spooky skeletons and gruesome ghosts – Halloween may seem like harmless fun to us but it can be scary for little ones who don’t know what’s going on. “Halloween is one of the easier ‘scary’ moments to explain to preschoolers – you can say it’s just pretend and a bit of fun,” says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Mandy Bryon. “Children can see that it’s under the control of an older adult or responsible person, and they are reassured that it’s a game.”
A medical procedure
If your child is booked in for a medical procedure – for example they need blood taken, an X-ray or intravenous line put in – it can seem very scary to your child. After all, they can’t control whether or not the procedure happens – and, crucially, nor can you.
“When explaining why they need it, it’s best to keep things straightforward and simple – such as that we need to have a look at your tummy so we can get you feeling better,” says Dr Bryon. “Don’t go into too much detail about the tests as it might cause more alarm.”
And make sure your little one has small ways they can control the rest of their environment. “Ask your child to decide which toys they take with them, who they want to sit next to, the snack they will eat and whose hand they want to hold.”
Death of a pet
When your child’s favourite animal dies, it’s completely normal for them to feel upset and need your support. “Tell them that their pet had a happy life and that you’re all very sad and are going to miss them, but that you have to say goodbye,” says Dr Bryon. “It lets your child know that things are alive, and then they disappear.”
It’s good to show that you as parents feel sad too and explain that it’s because you’re missing your pet. And then distract your child, saying, ‘Let’s see what we can do to make ourselves feel happy.’”
It’s normal for a child to feel sad for a few weeks, but if they’re still upset after a month or more, Dr Bryon suggests speaking to your GP.
A sick family member
Only tell your child what they need to know to suit their level of understanding. “But it’s important to tell them something – you need to make sure your child has all the essential information so they don’t feel anxious about any unanswered questions,” says Dr Bryon. “However, they don’t need to know the detail – for example, that the illness is really serious, and there’s uncertainty about whether they’ll come home.”
She suggests starting with saying, ‘They have to go to hospital because hospitals are places which can make your body better when it’s unwell.’
A child will understand this as they know that you take medicine to get better.
If the affected person will look different due to treatment – for example hair loss because of chemotherapy – you need to talk to them in a very matter-of-fact way. By telling them about any noticeable changes in advance, you’ll reassure them that you know all about this and it’s under control.
Death of a family member
When someone close to you and your child dies suddenly, avoid telling your little one straight away – you’ll need time to cope with your own sadness first and to think about what and how to tell them.
When it’s time to tell them, Dr Bryon advises being straightforward with your choice of words. “‘Death’, ‘dying’ and ‘died’ carry no more anxiety than any other words for children of this age,” she says. “These are far better than using ‘passing away’ or ‘lost’, which give the impression that the person will come back again.”
She warns against saying that your loved one ‘died in their sleep’ or ‘fell asleep and didn’t wake up’. “Children of this age are concrete thinkers so words that might seem reassuring to adults can cause confusion or further anxiety,” she says. “
Dr Bryon suggests framing it simply: ‘We are sad because Grandpa isn’t coming back – he died but we had such good times with him. Shall we look at some photographs?’
However, if you or your partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or your partner has died suddenly, seek immediate help from a trained child psychologist.
“You don’t have to take the psychologist’s advice but you do need a sounding board,” says Dr Bryon. “You are grieving and it’s difficult to know how you should speak to your child in those situations.” Find out more about supporting children when a close relative is dying.
Scary news stories
We all try to protect little ones from worry, but every now and again they may pick up on world events that are disturbing or hard to explain.
If your child asks about something like a bomb or terror attack, Dr Byron suggests first finding out where they heard about it and why they’re asking so you can understand the context.
You’ll need to filter your response, only giving them certain information. “You don’t want to scare them,” says Dr Bryon. “Your role is to reassure your child that they’re safe and being looked after.” Answer them in a very straightforward but reassuring way. For example, to a question about bombs, you could say, ‘A bomb is something that makes a big explosion but you don’t need to be worried about it.’
“It’s important to distance the danger from your child to help them feel safe,” says Dr Bryon. “You can’t allow a child of three to five years to live with uncertainty – you have to put reassurances around them.”
It seems that young children respond well to honesty – but it’s good to know what information they need and what to shelter them from. By listening to them and remaining positive where you can, you’ll be able to tackle their worries together.
For more help on reassuring your little one, read our guide to answering awkward questions.