No matter how stable your family is, there will probably come a time when you need to have a tough conversation with your kid. An Aunt is diagnosed with cancer. A beloved pet dies. As parents, we struggle with how much to explain and whether or not to bring it up at all. We wonder if our kids will understand.
I have one friend whose son had cancer. She and her husband chose to be honest with their other children. Another friend has a husband who is HIV+ and whose viral load is approaching full-blown AIDS. They still haven’t told their pre-teen daughter. Personally, I think they’re making a mistake.
I’ve had my share of difficult talks with my five-year-old, from telling him about my divorce to explaining that he doesn’t have a grandmother on my side because my mother died. But by far the most difficult talks have been those related to his father’s disease.
My ex-husband has primary-progressive multiple sclerosis. As his disease has worsened, so has his ability to walk. At kindergarten orientation, he trailed his hand along the lockers, the school walls, and the backs of chairs for balance. He leaned against bookcases for support. I noticed that the tips of his shoes were scuffed and worn bare from falling.
Due to a combination of pride, toxic masculinity, and denial, he refuses to use any of the canes multiple doctors have given him. In fact, he left them behind when he moved out of our house. He still won’t install hand controls in his car and instead uses his legs to manipulate the pedals, even though his legs frequently spasm. Ask anyone who knows him well and they’ll tell you his disease is worsening. Yet not according to him. That dynamic plays out in his relationship to our son.
During the first week of kindergarten, my son’s teacher sent me an email requesting that I come in and talk to her about some concerns she had about C. I groaned. Whose kid gets in trouble the very first week of school? I couldn’t wait two days to find out what she wanted to talk about, so I emailed her back and asked her to explain. She told me that he’d been telling kids that his daddy was going to die soon.
At five years old, my son can see that his father is different from other dads. I’ve trained him from a young age not to grab our legs walking up stairs, or run too far ahead on the sidewalk, or pull on us because his daddy might fall over. While he can see the differences, he can’t make sense of them quite yet.
When my ex-husband falls on the ice or has to hold onto things for support, C interprets his father’s claims that nothing is wrong in the worst possible manner: Obviously, he’s hiding something awful from C and must be dying.
When deciding how to handle difficult conversations with children, I now come down on the side of being honest and upfront. If not told the whole truth, some kids – like mine – fill in the worst possible interpretation. Recently, I watched this play out again.
After two days stuck inside due to snow, I’d loaded my son into the car and taken him to Como Conservatory. This sprawling iron building houses plants from the rainforest and other tropical climes in rooms muggy with heat – the perfect antidote to a cold Minnesota winter. Running from one room to the next, C passed a man sitting at a table with a frog in a terrarium and a frog’s skeleton on display.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the skeleton.
“It’s a frog’s skeleton. See how long their bones are?” The volunteer pointed out the jointed limbs.
C tilted his head. “Did someone kill the frog to get its skeleton?”
“No, no, no,” the man shook his head. “It was already dead.”
“Oh, okay.” He looked up at me with the same big blue eyes that stole my heart the first time I held him in my arms. Then he said, “Mommy, I want Daddy to die in the next five days.”
It had been a few months since he’d made comments about his father dying, and I’d thought we were over this phase. I forced a weak smile for the shocked volunteer and hustled C onto the next exhibit.
If something big, like cancer or MS, exists in your child’s life, expect to have the death conversation more than once. They might ask the same questions several times, and over a period of time. Part of childhood is making sense of the world around them, and while you may wish it wasn’t the case, death, too, is part of their world.
Later that day, in the conservatory, I sat down on a bench and pulled C into my arms. “You know that your daddy has a disease, right?” I asked him.
He nodded solemnly. “Yes, that’s why we park in handicapped.”
“Uh-huh. It’s hard for him to walk very far. Do you remember what disease he has?”
He shook his head no, and I explained multiple sclerosis to him again. “But he’s not going to die from it, honey. It just makes life a little harder.”
I don’t know how much C understood, and I’ll probably have to go over it all with him again. My ex doesn’t like to talk about it and shrugs off or avoids questions. I try to walk a delicate line between being honest with my son and not ticking him off.
Ultimately, I value creating an open environment for discussion in favor of my ex’s possible anger. In cases of divorce, therapist Kathleen Matthews, LICSW, recommends parents communicate openly and tell each other these sorts of discussions have taken place. She also advises, “I would want to let the child know that I was going to be sharing what they said (if they are over eight years old usually) so they don’t feel betrayed.”
Children are sensitive souls, who pick up and notice more than one might assume. If not allowed to ask questions and express their emotions honestly, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world may grow to epic and awful proportions. If you explain a situation simply and in an age appropriate manner, they’re capable of grasping a great deal.
My son knows the term ‘synapse,’ and I’ve used sugar packets and creamers at a restaurant to explain nerve endings and pathways. A little creativity may be necessary, but most parents have plenty of that.
Truly, honesty is the best policy.
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