Helpful Tips For Talking To Your Kids About All The Hard Stuff
How to talk to your kids about death isn’t necessarily a headline that many people would flock to right away, thinking, Yes! This is what I really want to be thinking about right now!
No one enjoys talking about these topics, let alone with children. It absolutely sucks.
But sometimes it’s necessary, because life isn’t always butterflies and ice cream sundaes. Life can be very challenging and brings its own set of grievances. And it’s important that as parents, we feel equipped to handle these conversations with our kids.
Here is a sample of tough topics that may come across your radar in parenting: death, terminal illness, divorce or separation, broken friendships, job loss, sudden move, relationship struggles, doubting faith, suicide. These are some heavy issues!
I’d like to share with you some tips on how to talk to your kids about death and other hard topics. I hope at the end of this article you feel a bit more equipped to approach your kids on these subjects when the time comes.
Know that God has put you in your children’s lives for a reason. You can tackle these topics by relying on God’s wisdom and strength.
Let’s learn and grow together friend!
*This article contains affiliate links which means I may make a small commission from any items that you purchase.
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It’s so important when talking to kids about death, suffering, divorce, or disease that as parents, we give them an age-appropriate explanation.
For instance, a 4-year-old doesn’t need to know about every single chemo treatment, how the cancer is ravaging your body, and that you may have a 20% chance to live. A child that young doesn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to be able to take it all in.
A better conversation would go something like this:
Parent: “Sweetie, Mommy has a sickness inside of her called cancer. I have to put medicine in my body in order to make the sickness go away, so I might not be feeling good for a while, but it’s okay. I’m still here and I’m still your Mommy.”
Child: “Can I help it go away?”
Parent: “You can’t sweetie, but you can pray for me, sit with me if I’m not feeling well, and watch movies with me when I may be too tired to do anything else. Can you do that?”
Child: “I think so. Mommy…are you going to die?”
Parent: “You know what, sweetie? Only God knows when and how that will happen for any of us. He says He knows the number of our days and all the hairs on our heads. So, let’s not worry about that. Let’s just focus on Mommy getting better, ok?”
Child: “Okay Mommy. I love you.”
This conversation is just an example of what it could be like with a 4-year-old. Obviously, you know your child best and are aware of what they can handle. Some kids can handle way more than others no matter their age.
What’s important is to communicate the information to your child in a way he/she will best understand.
Sometimes using books can be helpful because children can relate to storybook characters and their problems. Books act as a segue into the real-life family issue and can help introduce the topic in a non-threatening way.
However you talk to your child, just get on their level and communicate!
Honesty is the Best Policy
When it comes to talking to your kids about hard topics, honesty is the best policy. I know this is debatable amongst parents, but I lean more towards honesty than sugar-coating the truth.
Most of us, when starting out as parents, don’t give much thought to how to have difficult conversations with our kids. It’s not yet on the radar.
I know that when my husband and I went through pre-marital counseling, there wasn’t a session on “how to talk to your future kids about death and hard topics.”
It’s one of those things that seems to just come up when life situations happen.
I certainly wasn’t planning on introducing Addie (now 7) to the topic of death at such a young age, but by the time she was 4 ½ she had already been to 3 funerals.
How did we deal with those conversations? We were very honest. We took them one at a time.
When she was 2 ½ she went to her great grandma’s funeral. At that time Addie was very verbal and comprehended quite a bit for her age, so we told her that MuMu was older, and her heart was getting tired and weak, and that God decided it was time for her to be in her forever home with Jesus.
We told her that Mumu’s family and friends were getting together to celebrate her life and that some people may be sad because they wanted her to be on Earth longer. Addie soaked it in and when questions came up, we tried to answer them as best we could.
We have found that there’s no perfect formula or script to read to your children when it comes to death and suffering. For my husband and I, we would rather err on the side of being too honest than just giving Addie a lot of fluff to placate her curiosity.
Power of Questions
Anyone who’s been around kids knows that they are expert question-askers. It’s how they interact with the world around them. They are taking in so much information as they grow and develop and getting answers to their curious questions helps them understand things better!
Questions are powerful in a child’s life.
I learned this in my years teaching kindergarten, and it has proven true in parenting Addie.
Having an open-door policy for questions when it comes to hard topics with your kids or teens will serve you well in the long run.
What do you mean by an open-door policy for questions?
An open-door policy for questions with your kids means…
- They can ask you anything
- There’s no such thing as a dumb question
- You will do your best to answer their questions (in an age-appropriate way)
- If you don’t have an answer right away, you will think on it and get back with them
- Your children will not be scolded or berated for the questions they ask (if they seem too personal or detailed)
- You can ask your kids anything too
It’s important when discussing hard topics like death, that children feel they can say what’s on their mind or ask questions if they’re still confused or worried.
Here’s an example:
Dad: “Honey, I need to tell you something. Can you come and sit down?”
Daughter (10): “Sure Dad, what’s up?”
Dad: “It’s about Grandma. She passed away last night in her sleep. The doctors think it was a heart attack.”
Daughter: (long pause) “She’s really gone?” (tears and more tears)
Dad: “Yes sweetheart, she’s gone. But we know she’s in heaven, so that’s good. At least she’s not suffering.”
Daughter: “But we just saw her last week! She took a long walk with us. We baked cookies. I don’t understand. How could she die? This is so unfair!”
Dad: “Sometimes things in life don’t make sense. And death is one of those. I don’t understand it either. I loved my mom very much. She was a wonderful person. This is hard for me too honey. But I’m here for you if you have any questions or need to talk, ok?”
Daughter: “Ok Dad. I think I just want to be alone for a while. I’m going to be in my room.”
Questions are very helpful in relationships, and we need to use them with our kids to help them effectively process hard situations.
Let them ask their questions and be willing to answer whatever is on their hearts.
This one may seem obvious, but it’s very important to mention.
When you’re discussing hard topics with your kids, prayer is a key element.
I would suggest reading the room and getting a feel for how your kids are processing the conversation first, then go from there with incorporating prayer.
Prayer can be used to close out the conversation, or one-on-one with a particular child who may be having a harder time.
Make sure that your children know that prayer is an all the time thing, not just something you do in church or before meals. Incorporating prayer into your daily life as a family helps to foster a culture of prayer in your home.
This is a beautiful discipline, that if utilized well, can produce so much fruit not just in your own heart, but in your children’s hearts as well.
Real Life Example:
This past year we have had 2 family friends battle cancer, one being an adult, and another being a child.
Addie is very curious, and I decided the best thing for her was to be honest. We talked about cancer, diseases, suffering, and death, but we also talked about encouraging others, we read Scripture, and prayed for healing.
Addie was able to see the power of prayer in action because our friend’s son was declared CANCER FREE! Her face lit up when I told her the news and showed her the Facebook video of him twirling in a circle saying there was NO MORE CANCER!
Addie connected Lane’s healing from cancer to God’s power to heal and deliver from sickness!
Looking back, I have seen Addie grow in empathy and compassion, as well as grow in her desire to pray for herself and others when things are tough.
Hard conversations aren’t easy, but when you incorporate prayer, you are teaching them the importance of taking their needs to the Lord and showing them how much God cares for them!
When in doubt, pray with your kids, and then pray some more!
Time and Space
When talking about death, grief, or divorce with kids, it’s vital that as parents we remember to give them time and space to process and have their emotions.
We need this too as adults!
Think about a time when you got the phone call and had to process some awful news. It probably took you days or weeks to muddle through your emotions.
If we need time as adults to process hard stuff, then we need to extend that to our children and teenagers as well.
Remember that your children are unique and will have their own way of processing hard stuff. You might have an older son who withdraws and doesn’t want to talk at all. Maybe his way of dealing with things is to go outside and shoot baskets for hours and just think. Totally fine.
Maybe one of your daughters is a big-time feeler so her emotions are all over the place. Hearing some difficult news may cause some meltdowns at first, and later in the week she may be very angry or withdrawn. Give your daughter the grace and the space to express her feelings.
We can give our kids the grace and space to process hard stuff, but it’s also ok to remind them to be respectful and kind to their siblings and parents when they’re feeling sad. Going through hard times isn’t a free pass to act like a jerk. It’s just not.
Here are some great things you can suggest to help your kids and teens process hard life situations:
- Reading books on a particular topic
- Watching a show with a character going through similar situations
- Be active
- Spend some one-on-one time with that child
- Ask them to write a letter to you about how they’re feeling (if they love writing)
- Do a favorite activity with them to take their mind off things
- Serve together
- Draw a picture of how they’re feeling (great for younger ones)
- Role play (with dolls, puppets, toys, etc)
- Seek out a seasoned, biblical counselor (if necessary!)
Remember, this is just a list to help you with your kids!
When You Don’t Know What To Say…
Sometimes in parenting, you may come across situations with your kids where you’re at a loss for words. The hurts are so deep!
For instance, maybe your teenage daughter is dealing with body image issues and facing mean girls at school. The mama bear in you feels like tearing into them, but you have to keep your cool. How do you comfort your daughter when she’s clearly struggling?
A conversation might go like this:
Daughter: “I’m so ugly and fat. I seriously don’t know why people even talk to me at school!”
Mom: “Honey, you know that’s not true.”
Daughter: “You’re just saying that because you’re my mom. The girls on the team make fun of me all the time. They suck! I HATE seeing them every day!”
Mom: “Is it really that bad?”
Daughter: “They put some flyers in my locker about taking diet pills and I saw them laughing when I found them in my locker. I was so humiliated I got dressed and left so I could go cry somewhere else.”
Mom: “I’m so sorry sweetie, I know…”
Daughter: “Mom, don’t try to fix this. I just need to vent. Please.”
Mom: (Says nothing and just sits by her daughter, letting her know that she’s there.)
That’s just an example, but you get the picture. Sometimes you just have to be there for your child or teenager, not solve their problems.
Kids don’t expect their parents to be perfect, they just expect them to be loving and present.
When you don’t know what to say and you’re at a loss for words, your mere presence might be just what is needed.
And there will definitely be times when you don’t know what to say, which is perfectly fine. We don’t have all the answers, but we can still be there for our kids and try to navigate these moments together, remembering to take our concerns and worries to the Lord.
What are some good resources for how to talk to your kids about death and other hard topics?
There are thousands of resources out there, but not all of them good ones (in my opinion). Here are some wonderful resources that I hope come in handy for you and your family.
Courageous Parenting Podcast
Focus on the Family Parenting Podcast
Parenting with Ginger Hubbard
Books (Click on any of these links or images and purchase one today!)
What Am I Feeling? By Dr. Josh and Christi Straub (comes with a feelings poster!)
When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith-Filled Responses For Tough Topics by Bromleigh McCleneghan
ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso (this book speaks to loved ones dealing with a terminal illness)
I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Let’s Wrap It Up!
Talking to your kids about death and suffering is not for the faint of heart, but unfortunately these hard topics are a part of life.
Don’t lose heart, my friend, you can navigate these conversations with courage and confidence.
You may fumble over your words, not know what to say at times, but you know what? It just keeps you humble!
A humble posture before the Lord is the best place to be in parenting because it keeps us closer to God.
We need to rely on Him daily no matter what circumstances we are facing!
When these tough situations arise in life, take a deep breath, pray, and go for it.
Stand back and watch God work. You can do this!
Lots of love to each of you,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13
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