Recently, I was following up with a parent who was completely lost regarding an event that took place with her family. Since my last session with her daughter, the other caregiver in the home was placed in jail awaiting arraignment and probably wouldn’t be returning home in the near future. “How do I talk to her about this? Do I tell her what happened? Like really what happened?!” After she let the reality of her questions, and then ensuing panic wash over her, I decided to give her my answer. YES and YES.
It is a good idea to go ahead and tell children what is happening, but WITHOUT the details they can’t process. You know your child best and know where he/she is developmentally, and that knowledge will be your guide. Children are more intuitive than we generally give them credit for, so the odds are they know something is amiss anyway. Plus if they don’t get some sort of explanation, they will often come up with their own theory, and sometimes it can be much worse than what really may be happening.
There’s lots of ways to tell young children what’s going on in a way they understand, but the most important thing is to separate YOUR feelings from what’s happening within it. You won’t want to give the feeling that because dad, grandma, or Uncle Joe made a mistake, they’re terrible people. Children will be able to more closely associate this kind of situation with a mistake that they have made before, so protecting and preventing potential esteem issues and projection of the child thinking, “I made a mistake once, I must be a bad too”, is imperative.
First, you want to make sure that they can relate to the effects of poor behavior and what happens as a result. So maybe the conversation would go something like:
“Hey, you know how I get upset with you when you break one of my rules or like putting yourself in danger…or not listening…or making poor choices, and then you get your Nintendo DS taken away…or you can’t go to your friends’ sleepover? Well, your dad made a poor grown up choice that wasn’t safe for him or for us, but we are all are safe now, and he’s taking responsibility for his poor choice and serving his consequence.”
Younger kids may or may not have follow up questions. If they do have questions right away, a simple way to handle it, in the moment, would be to say:
“You know what, I don’t really know everything right now, but when I do, we will sit down and talk about it as soon as that happens.”
This will give you some time to plan a further explanation or answer the question truthfully, but in a way they will understand.
One resource I have found helpful for 3-8 year olds is a program Sesame Street currently runs online, “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration”, and its basically free. There are videos, other resources, and a variety of hands on activities you can download and print. (http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration#)
Unfortunately there is no cookie cutter way of approaching a situation such as this. Every event has varying circumstances and the individuals involved and affected are also so very different. The most important tool you have is the simple fact that you’re the parent. You know what your child will or will not be able to handle. Trust me. I often hear parents say, “I’m just doing the best that I can.” So do that. Doing the best we can is all anyone really asks for, right?