Sometimes we don’t know whether to tell the truth or put on a happy face when children are in our midst…

Parents often ask me for advice when they’re going through a difficult time. Whether it’s a divorce, an illness, a work-related worry, or simply watching the news – we all experience emotional ups and downs. Sometimes we don’t know whether to tell the truth or put on a happy face when children are in our midst.

A child’s survival is dependent on their parent’s ability to care for them, so they can be highly attuned to our moods; if we’re struggling, it could mean that we won’t be capable of looking after them.

When we’re having a hard time and a child asks, “What’s wrong?”, if we simply say, “Nothing, honey! Everything’s fine!”, they get a mixed message. Their active imagination tries to make sense of what’s going on, often magnifying anxiety as they try to reconcile what they’re picking up from us emotionally, and the words we’re using – which often contradict the truth of what we’re going through.

What to do?

Since most of us were raised in households where uncomfortable feelings were generally swept under the rug, we don’t always know how to honour our children’s perceptiveness while still protecting them from information that is beyond their developmental ability to process.

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Here are some thoughts on responding to a child who asks, “Is anything wrong?”:

Let your words match your truth

If your child says, “Mommy, are you sad?”, you might say, “I am a little sad today. I heard that a good friend is feeling sick and I feel bad about it. But I’m also okay and fine, and enjoying our day together. I’m both things – sad, and just fine.”

If an older child wants more detail, you could say, “Lydia just found out that she’s going to have to have another surgery so I’m a little distracted and sad about that. I know how much she was hoping that she wouldn’t have to go back into the hospital. I’m sad, and I had a little bit of a cry, and now I’m going to make her a lasagne that she can keep in her freezer. Want to help?”

Let your child lead

Let your child lead, answering questions in an age-appropriate way that acknowledges the truth of what’s upsetting you without burdening them with details that they’re not equipped to process.

Every situation calls for a unique response

Every situation calls for a unique response and of course there are times when heartbreak lands in the middle of our family’s life and we have to deal with pain or loss more directly. What’s most important is that we respect our child’s sensitivity to our emotional challenges while conveying that we are sturdy enough to find our way through.

Aim to be appropriately honest with your children

Aim to be appropriately honest with your children when you’re going through something difficult, bearing in mind their age and maturity. Doing so will help them move into their own grown-up lives with greater resilience, emotional awareness, and the confidence that will help them handle life’s tough moments with grace.