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Should We Tell the Kids?

DFW-area experts give their advice to parents on whether, when and how to tell your kids about tragic news, such as a school shooting.

“Hey, I just thought you should know that the Smiths [alias] are filing for divorce,” my friend whispered on the sly, as the carpool crew (two of whom were Smiths) scrambled into my car after soccer practice. “They aren’t telling the kids.”

I barely had a response. If my friend is telling me, then others know too. Which made it hard to imagine those kids not knowing. “OK,” I whispered back.

Secrets. Are they ever good? “We aren’t telling the kids” acts as a makeshift shield to protect young minds and hearts from life’s harsh realities. Issues like divorce, illness, addiction and job loss weave themselves through families. Though young ears perk and eyes widen the moment hushed tones float from behind closed doors, kids tend to accept our full-disclosure avoidance as we explain, shrug off or change the subject. They trust those in authority — at least outwardly.

But according to research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) examining a child’s ability to decipher when adults are committing “sins of omission,” kids know. Researchers concluded that children are not only adept at figuring out when they’re being lied to, but they can also intuit when adults are telling partial truths. In fact, children compensate for incomplete information by exploring and drawing their own conclusions.

So how do we navigate life’s turbulent roads while protecting the hearts of our children? And when, in the name of love, are we setting our kids up for more pain?

“There are some things that people, especially children, should know and some things they should not,” says Dr. Thomas Shoaf, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Richardson. “Of concern is how secrets are used, whether to protect or to hurt, and their effects on the development of self-identity, relationships and boundaries.”

“It is this precious gift [of honesty] that fosters the development of a positive identity for the child.”

If and When to Tell the Kids

“Protecting a young child from information — from terminal illness to family secrets — that could cause unnecessary fear, anxiety, sadness or a negative identity makes sense for healthy development and well-being,” Shoaf explains. “However, the disclosure of this information at an appropriate time could foster the development of healthy coping skills and the ability to trust in relationships. The key is sharing information at the proper time.”

So when is the proper time? Celia Heppner, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says to consider not only a child’s age, but also his or her emotional maturity. “For younger children, stick to concrete language and basic facts,” she says. “Explain what is true, but use language they can understand without minimizing information.” As kids get older, broader language can be used and questions entertained.

It’s best to talk with kids “as soon as the parents can discuss the situation without being overly emotional themselves.”

No matter how hard we try, we cannot control a child’s environment, Heppner points out. “My recommendation is to share the information at a time before they will be exposed to societal cues. This will provide the child a framework to be able to handle the information when it does come up in a different setting.” Because as we all know, inevitably it will.

Information we would like to keep secret isn’t limited to illness or family issues. When big events like a school shooting or natural disaster occur, stories and videos are blasted all over the media. It’s best to talk with kids “as soon as the parents can discuss the situation without being overly emotional themselves,” offers Heppner. “Again, the key is to pre-empt cues that surround every challenging issue.”

“At all ages,” Heppner stresses, “give the age-appropriate explanation (avoid over-explanation). Pause. Let them digest the information. And let them ask questions.” Your kids’ questions are a good gauge of how much they are ready to handle.

Julie Hildebrand, a Dallas mother of three, struggled with the right time to tell her little ones about their grandfather’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. “The years my husband’s dad was sick were hard,” she shares. “One of the hardest things for us was deciding to what we should expose our very young children. We gave them what we considered to be age-appropriate answers to their big questions and then felt peace about showing them some of the harder truths of life.”

What to Tell Your Kids

Not only is it critical to know when and how to share information with your kids; it’s also crucial to consider what to share. Experts say err on the side of the whole truth.

“Determining whom to trust is an important skill to learn at an early age,” states Hyowon Gweon, regarding the MIT study. Gweon served as lead author of the recent MIT study that explored the question of whether children can discern when adults are telling them the truth — just not the whole truth.

“When someone provides us information, we not only learn about what is being taught; we also learn something about that person,” offers Gweon. And, based on that information — whether it’s accurate, complete or a partial share — we gauge our trust. Kids do, too.

North Texas parents Holly and Brad Parker (names changed for confidentiality) say they also fretted over what to tell their children, friends and extended family when they learned that their college-age son was struggling with depression.

“It’s not exactly what we imagined for his life,” Holly says. “In the moment, the pain was so great — especially as we learned he’d entertained notions of suicide — that we didn’t know how much to say or when or how. What would people think?”

Their pain was palpable. “For us, our child provided the answer,” the mom adds. “We would have erred on trying to protect him by keeping the truth a secret. But he decided differently.”

His response: “We tell them the truth.” For him, airing secrets of self-doubt, loneliness and dark thoughts opened the door to healing and freedom from the chains that accompanied hiding the truth. “Interestingly, he didn’t want to tell us about his struggles,” Brad shares. “He didn’t want to hurt us. I guess the protection tables had turned.”

Holly adds, “We couldn’t help but wonder if, in all our good intentions, we had trained him to hide hurt.”

Gift of Honesty

“Secrets can lead to harmful miscommunication and shame that endures for years,” says Shoaf. “Children can be perceptive of parents’ nonverbal postures, mannerisms and attitudes that reflect the negative and shameful aspects of some secrets. In turn, children may internalize this guilt, shame or doubt when it has nothing to do with their actions.”

So what’s a parent to do? According to Shoaf, we can teach our kids that everyone faces difficult storms. Honesty, along with mercy, love and forgiveness (if necessary), can help us move on and live full lives. “It is this precious gift [of honesty] that fosters the development of a positive identity for the child,” Shoaf explains.

After her father-in-law’s death, Hildebrand’s youngest daughter (almost 6) asked if they could visit neighbors where he had lived. “The kids gave pictures, hugs and time,” Julie remembers. “I’m fairly certain that we don’t have to protect our kids from every hurt. I don’t think mine would have ever thought to consider these people if they knew nothing about their struggles.”

This article was originally published in January 2015.

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