How To Tell Teens Bad News
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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Last week, we talked about lying to kids, including lying to deflect questions about events children might find upsetting. You can read that article here, but basically I advised parents to be honest with their kids, since they will likely find out the truth anyway. Better to hear the worst from you.
What if your children are not little kids, still living in a protective bubble, but teens or preteens? Older children are more worldly-wise and they quite quickly see the implications of distressing events. They quite quickly assign blame, ask penetrating questions, and imagine outcomes. They get angry. They tell their friends. They may react with depression, anxiety or violence.
You want to protect your children. You want to keep even your older kids convinced of their safety and your ability to control a situation. But they’re too smart for that. They know too much. When things spin out of control in your life, how can you keep it from spinning out of control for your teen too?
You cannot control all things. How your teen reacts to bad news – news about divorce, relocation, job loss, serious illness, or death – depends in large part on the teen’s own personality and reaction style. You’ve lived with this person all his life and you know how he tends to respond to things. You can prepare for his reaction but you cannot change his preset pattern.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions for telling your teen bad news.
- Find the right time to talk. If you can, this will be a time when there aren’t any distractions and both you and your teen are in a decent mood and aren’t feeling hurried. But don’t wait for the perfect time. Act soon. The longer you wait to break the news to your teen, the more likely someone else will tell her first, and the more likely you’ll lose your nerve and not tell her at all.
- Be direct. The quicker you get to the point the better. A bit of an introduction is needed, to clue your teen in to what you’re going to talk about. Saying that this news might be difficult to hear is also good, so your teen has a few seconds to get emotionally prepped. Say, “Derek, you know Dad’s been having a rough time at work lately. I have some bad news about that…”
- Say what you need to say, then stop. Let your child talk. Let him ask questions, which you will answer honestly. Let him get upset. Let him cry. It’s okay if you cry yourself. Once you’ve broken the bad news, the natural response is emotional. Sit together with this news until he seems to have reached a quiet point.
- If there is more bad news to add, add it now. Say, “So… I don’t know if we’ll be able to stay in this house. We might have to move. I know that’s not what you want…” Be ready to listen again and help your child absorb this news. Depending on your child’s usual reaction patterns, he may end the conversation right now or he may be open to hearing more.
- If your child storms out of the room, don’t chase her. If she says she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, respect that. Like anybody else, your teen needs some time and space to adjust to what she’s just heard.
- If and when your child is open to hearing more, reassure him as best you can. Try to end on a positive note, even if it’s just to say, “We’ve weathered stuff before and we can do it again.”
- If your child has suggestions, listen and respect those. Don’t dismiss your child’s efforts to make things right or argue with her. Like you, she is trying to see a future. Her ideas may not seem credible to you, but you need all the creative solutions and positive thinking you can get. You both do.
Keep in mind that bad news is part of everyone’s life. You cannot protect your child from this but you can show him how to roll with the punches. How you share difficult change affects his happiness, your happiness, and your future together.
You can do this. Be sure to do it.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.