Last updated on Feb 1st, 2021 at 12:26 pm

“Mommy, where’s daddy? Why doesn’t he live with us?” or, “Mommy, when is granny coming back from heaven”. These are just 2 of the tough questions your toddler might ask you if you’re going through a divorce, or there’s been a death in the family. But before you respond, it’s really important that you think through how you’re going to answer.

“Subjects like an important historical event, the death of a loved one, a new baby, divorce or terminal illness all have specific do’s and don’ts when we address them with our young kids,” says psychologist Ilse de Beer.

ALSO SEE: How to help your children cope with death, divorce and the loss of a friendship

Ilse says parents need to take the following into consideration when explaining something difficult to a child aged between 3 and 5 years.

  • It’s important to remember the developmental stage of your toddler. Toddlers take everything very literal. At this age they have no abstract concept – they live in the here and now and cannot deal with too much information at a time. Toddlers don’t understand complicated subjects or philosophies. They also don’t have an understanding of things like permanence (for example, death). “Speak to your young child in simple terms. Use words and explanations they are familiar with – an age-appropriate story could be helpful, too” says Ilse.
  • Young children perceive the world differently than grownups or older children. “Each child brings their own sensitivities and temperament to the conversation. You should keep this in mind when explaining a difficult or complicated subject to your toddler,” says Ilse. “Children may have a variety of reactions to a situation – one moment they’ll feel sad and the next they’ll continue to play as if nothing has happened. Keep the answers concrete and don’t be alarmed if your toddler loses interest in the explanation,” adds Ilse. She says it’s normal for toddlers to ask the same question over and over. “Be patient and try to lay the foundations for having related conversations with your child as they get older.”
  • Address your child’s feelings – they focus on things that affect them. “Children are very sensitive to the emotional state of their loved ones, especially their parents. They need reassurance that everything is going to be ok. Hugs and snuggles help them to deal with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety,” says Ilse.

More about the expert:

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Ilse de Beer is a psychologist, specialising in health psychology. As a motivational speaker, she focuses on equipping people to function better emotionally in their day-to-day life. She holds a Magister Artium in Psychology from the Potchefstroom University for CHE as well as a PhD in Psychology from the University of Pretoria. Learn more about Ilse de Beer here.