Certain experiences and changes, such as the birth of a new child, loss within the family, changes in employment, and the illness of a loved one, tend to impact the relationships, routine and structure of a family. When children are present within a family, it is useful for the adults to think about and discuss how these changes might impact them. It is possible that sometimes adults may assume that their children are just too young to notice or understand the impact of a change that is happening within the family. Others may also wish to protect children from experiences which may be heavy or difficult, and thus opt to not share or discuss what is going on in the family with their children.
Whether it is a change that will impact the child directly, such as a family that is moving to a new house, or indirectly, such as a parent changing their job, a change might still trigger within the child the need to ask questions, to share concerns, to express excitement, or maybe anxiety or to acknowledge and process losses. Research shows that children tend to find ways to fill in the gaps in the information which they observe or which is given to them by others. This means that if a child senses tension or change in the family but does not receive a coherent and understandable explanation to why this tension or change is happening, a child will develop their own story around what is going on. For instance, if a family member is ill and the adults in the family are sad because of this, a child who is not aware of what is going on might conclude that the adults of the family are sad because the child has not been doing very well at school.
The challenge is often that balancing between protecting a child while at the same time giving them an explanation that makes sense to them. To protect a child, it is crucial for the adult to understand why this information is being given to the child. I cannot emphasize enough that it is not the role of the child to be the adult’s confidant or to be placed in positions where the child is expected to take sides between adults that they love. The reason for a child being given explanations needs to be for the benefit of the child; so that they have an understanding of what is going on within the family that makes sense to them.
Something that helps is that of thinking of an explanation that is age appropriate, because the stage of development of the child will influence how they will understand the information that is given to them. For instance, most preschool children see death as a temporary, reversible state, and it is appropriate for their age level to think this way. For children between five and nine, most children begin to understand how all living things eventually experience death and that this is not reversible. Children at this age may associate images with death, such as the image of skeletons. From nine through to adolescence, children will now begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and also become conscious of their own mortality.
The second part of this blog will continue to tackle tips of how to inform children about changes or difficulties that might be occurring within the family.
Rebecca Cassar is a Family Therapist practicing the Systemic Approach. She specializes in offering therapy to families, couples and individuals who are experiencing distress in their relationships. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 79291817.