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Life is not “all sunshine and rainbows.” If you want to guide your children through the stormy times of life you will need to become an “askable” parent. An askable parent gives honest information, is empathic and genuine about their own feelings, and listens well. Warning–if you want to be a guide, you will have to give up being an expert. Becoming an askable parent means admitting that there are some things that you don’t know.

Parent with honesty

When your children are curious about something, take the time to break down a hard concept into easy to understand, truthful, information. With the exception of Santa Claus, when a child asks a question do not give them a fairy tale. “Why do I have to go to school?” can be answered in many ways that provide good guidance. Instead of “because you have to or you will get arrested” or “because I said so” think about how school has been helpful to you: “School teaches you things that are important” and give examples. Include the benefits of social learning and learning how to learn.

parent with empathy

Obvious alert: Sometimes kids give big reactions to a small things. Most likely you have learned how to manage big emotions, but your children are still learning. Support in daily conversations means respecting their feelings, even if they are bigger than you think they should be. This is how “no one likes me” evolves into “no one played with me at recess” later can become “today was a sad recess for me.” Assist your child by validating feelings, and coaching them to express themselves in ways that help them to be understood.

parent through listening

Model good listening to your children by listening to them. Make sure to offer honest information and follow up with a question. “What do you think?” Monologues and lectures are not effective in teaching good communication and developing your credibility as an askable parent. Listen to understand their point of view. Be curious and interested–what do they think and feel about the world? Practicing effective listening involves being fully present and non-judgmental. This mindful approach to conversations with your children will reinforce a trusting relationship.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

Stephen Covey

when bad things happen . . .

Use everyday opportunities practicing with the little stuff to become an askable parent. This foundation prepares you for one of the most challenging times in parenting, when you have to deliver bad news. It is never easy to disrupt your children’s happiness. But a little preparation will make your hard job a bit easier.

When supporting your children through difficult times, think of an umbrella. You hold the umbrella to shelter your children from strong winds and heavy rain. They are still going to get wet, but you are there to help them weather the storm. Bad news will come to your doorstep at some point in your children’s young lives. Whether you are talking about moving, changing schools, or a serious illness in the family, I hope this added section gives you confidence and courage.

This particular post was prompted by a call to prepare a parent for telling their children about Grandpa’s cancer diagnosis. Apply the examples to your difficult situation when you are learning how to break bad news to your kids.

facts, feelings, and good listening

Gather specific information, including the relevant vocabulary. Use key facts to compose the beginning of your message. What do you know about the situation? What is still uncertain? How will this particular situation impact your children?

Provide reassurance while addressing questions and the unknowns.

Consider how you are feeling about the news. Allow yourself to explore how this news impacts you emotionally. Work on calming yourself before you speak with your children. But don’t be afraid to show emotion. Expressing your feelings gives them permission to express their feelings too.

Children are unique in how they react to change in their lives. Some kids have big feelings about small things and they let you know. Others keep their feelings more to themselves. Children who struggle with identifying or expressing feelings will need extra help. Be prepared to check in periodically to ask how they are doing with the news.

Developmental differences will guide your language and the depth of the conversation. For young children expect the conversation to be short, but frequent. They may seem to forget at times and you can gently remind them again of the bad news. Young children may be blunt in asking questions.

choose time and place

Find or create a quiet time and a private place to deliver difficult news. You want to allow space for questions and processing. Television and screens are off, but playing is okay. Legos, or fidgets, or lovies are great tactile comforts that allow kids to break eye contact and think while doing something that keeps them engaged. Avoid delivering bad news before a transition like going to bed or going to school. Let your children know that you are gathering them for something serious and important. It is kind to allow them to brace themselves for difficult information.

Sample dialogue:

“I need to talk with you all about something sad.”

“Grandpa was feeling very tired and went to the doctor. The doctor ran tests and discovered that Grandpa has cancer. Cancer is a serious illness.”

Pause to listen, do they want more information?

“The Cancer is in Grandpa’s lungs, and there will be more tests to find out if there is cancer in other places in his body. We don’t know what the treatments will be yet. The doctor is still running tests. We are waiting to learn more but we hope that Grandpa will be okay.”

Pause to listen, how will this effect them directly?

“Grandpa may not feel well while he is waiting to learn more about the cancer. We will see him on Sunday but he might be sitting a lot and might not feel like playing. He will be busy with appointments so he won’t be picking you up from school on Tuesdays, Aunt Mary will pick you up instead.”

Pause to listen. Are they talking about feelings? Acknowledge their feelings and/or lead with your own

“I feel sad that Grandpa has cancer, I wish he was healthy. I am worried about him.”

Some children will express their fears openly “Will Grandpa die?” others will wonder but be afraid to ask the question. To be askable I recommend that you address the question, spoken or unspoken.

“Will Grandpa die?”

“I don’t know. Cancer is serious and some people die from it, other people live with treatment. Grandpa will not feel well and it will be hard to see him sick. He will need out help.”

It is uncomfortable not knowing. But as long as you are trustworthy (be honest, empathize, and listen well) it will be okay that you don’t know everything. Your children will seek your guidance in figuring out solutions to problems big and small. Everyone feels better when they can “do something” to help with a difficult situation. Give suggestions like making a card or a meal, being thoughtful by delivering mail or groceries. They will be watching how you are helpful to learn how to provide support when people are ill. Life lessons last long after the bad news is delivered.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about becoming an askable parent I recommend a classic:

How to Talk to Kids about Really Important Things (1994)

If your children are anxious about the news there is an excellent article by the American Psychological Association, click here.

For a related article on adult crucial communications , click here.

Wishing you the best in your efforts at improving your connections with the valuable people in your life.

Health and happiness,

Dr. Lisa Marotta