Talking to Your Kids in a “Situation”

After I shared my story about having an Ependymoma (that’s fancy-speak for brain tumor in my 4th ventricle), the most asked question was “how did you talk to your kids about this” or “how did your kids handle this” or “how did you get your kids through this”? I’m not an expert or a psychologist, so this is just our parenting, and you’ll probably disagree or want to do it differently.


We have a 9 year old, a 7 year old, and a turned-5-the-week-after-my-surgery year old.  I think that the most important part about talking to your children in the face of a less than ideal situation is knowing them.  I am not a fan of the “Family Meeting” style of crisis address where everyone is put into a room and provided with a prepared speech and allowed to ask questions because I don’t think that it’s fair to each child’s unique needs.  I do think, however, you need to tell each child within moments of each other and ensure that they know there’s an ongoing open dialogue.

My 9 year old son has a tremendous need to see and understand everything.  We don’t hide things from our children, although we do guide them through and try to listen to their needs.  He’s always been very intuitive about how much information he needs, and he needs a lot more than my other two kids.  He retains information from everywhere, so it’s important for us to talk to him and let him ask questions.  He wrote a whole list of questions for the neurosurgeon, and when we told him I was starting radiation, he wanted to know if I would get another tumor from the treatment- he remembered hearing that radiation could cause tumors after the nuclear fiasco in Japan.  It was important for us to listen to him to know how much information he had, and what exactly he was thinking.

That’s another note, though.  While we knew up front that post-surgical radiation was likely, we didn’t provide all the details at once.  Even though our 9 year old is savvy and intelligent and likes information, we gave him manageable pieces of information.  Dealing with an illness, or other crisis, is kind of like the proverbial “eating an elephant”, and you need to do it one bite at a time.  Overwhelming even the most emotionally mature child with too much information just gives them too much, and they can’t digest it or logically approach each piece.  We started with the information that there was an object in my brain that shouldn’t be there, and the term he’d hear was “tumor”, and that it needed to be removed.  We explained we had an excellent surgeon and that I’d be staying in the hospital for some time while I recovered.  We didn’t make promises about a number of days or tell him the potential for things going wrong, because there were far too many.  We decided that once I woke up, my husband would be able to address those issues that actually mattered, like “mommy is slow when she speaks and very slow when she walks”.  Also, I’m not going to lie, ending on a high note isn’t a bad idea.  We followed the QandA with “bonus- you get to hang out with your awesome Uncle all day while mommy’s at surgery”, which I’m pretty sure made a big difference.  We believe in reflexive questions, and make sure that we don’t over-provide information, but rather answer questions concisely and allow him to follow-up if he’d like additional details.

Our 7 year old, on the other hand, is incredibly sensitive.  He doesn’t want information.  We’ve given him small bites of information and allowed him to ask questions to get more information, but he doesn’t typically want to know.  He is the one who needed me to wear a hat or scarf to cover my scars while my stitches were still in and who would sweetly come into my room and confirm “You’re going to be better one day, right?”  It was the only information he wanted, and all he needed to know.  We had to force some information on him, like some of the scarier terminology that he’d be hearing, and unfortunately I messed this up.  In trying not to push him too hard, I didn’t realize how daft and insensitive other adults would be (and you can leave angry comments on that below- but it’s nicer wording than I want to use).  People would take it upon themselves to come up and ask incredibly detailed and inappropriate questions about my health IN FRONT OF MY KIDS.  Just to clarify, that’s a totally jerk move.  Asking “could she die during surgery” or “will she be able to talk and walk” or talking about “what’s going to happen to the kids if she leaves to get treatment for six weeks, won’t that be horrible for them?” is:
a) none of your business
b) wildly inappropriate, and
c) a totally jerkface move
especially when you’re forcing a child to confront a truth again and again that they want to hide from.  Grown-up conversations are appropriate in grown-up only areas only.  I waited too long to force some of the terms on my 7 year old and ended up doing damage control.  One of the most important lessons I learned from him was to tell him that he had the right to tell anyone, even an adult or a teacher, anytime that he didn’t want to talk about me being sick, and if they persisted, he was allowed to yell, kick, scream, and walk away without worrying about being rude or in trouble.

Our 5 year old turned 5 a week after my surgery.  We provided her with basic facts, the terms she might hear, and checked to see if she had questions.  She didn’t.  Then we told her that she got to stay with her uncle the day of my surgery, that her favorite (and only!) Auntie was coming to visit while I was in the hospital, and that her BFF and her mom would be coming to visit, too.  Mommy having surgery became the most awesome thing in the world.  She still comes in to pet my head and tell me I’m her beautiful mommy “even if I’m bald”.  I adore that 🙂

So, in conclusion:
1) Provide your children with the individualized amount of information that they need.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep when answering.
2) Make sure you introduce the vocabulary of your situation so that so that someone else doesn’t do it for you
3) Keep checking in, asking if the kids have questions
4) Provide the information they need to get them through the current step of the process, don’t make them try to process a situation that will take months (or years) in one conversation
5) Empower them to deal with others.  They are allowed and entitled to deal with the situation and their emotions in a way that is self-honoring, and if that means telling others to butt out, it’s okay.  Let them know some safe people to talk with- they may not want to talk to a sick parent, or a second parent may be unavailable, especially if they’re acting as caregiver.  Give them grandma’s number on speed dial, a close family friend they’re comfortable with, or a godparent who can step in confidently and deal with your child’s insecurities or questions in the manner they need.

As a last note, I think that being mentally ready to talk to your kids is helpful, too.  It was important that we didn’t just tell our kids not to panic, but that we actually were not panicking.  That meant getting to a place mentally where we were okay really quickly, and as I’ve mentioned before, our faith helped with that, but whatever you need to do to get there, it’s important.  I realize this whole post probably makes me seem really far-out there in terms of my beliefs about kids, but I don’t think kids are dumb, they know when you’re actually okay and when you’re lying to them.

At the end of the day, though, when you’re faced with a really difficult situation with your children, whether it’s a divorce, an illness, a death in the family, it’s all about the continuing process of building trust between them and you.  You’re going to do the best that you possibly can, and you’re probably going to screw something up royally, too.  They will love you tomorrow.  You will love them, too.  Next time, you’ll try not to screw up the same thing.  In the course of a lifetime, most of the crisis we face eventually smooth out to blips in the radar in retrospect, and if you can do your best in the moment, then that’s a really good thing.

If you’d like to read some experts on this subject, not just my “Kids are intelligent individuals” rant, here’s some suggestions for various “Situations” that you might encounter:
Talking to Kids About Cancer- The Dana Farber Institute
Straight Talk to Kids– NYU Cancer Institute
Talking to Kids About Death– National Institutes of Health
How to Help Your Child Grieve– Focus on the Family
Six Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Divorce– Psychology Today
Tips for Talking to Kids About Terminal Illness– Huffington Post