Major life events – both expected and unexpected, exciting, and upsetting – can be overwhelming. Just like in any family at a time like this, putting our children first might be hard because we are trying to cope with our own emotional needs as well as the situation itself.
We might feel pulled in many different directions as we try to take care of our family, especially our children, who also need our support.
Telling your child about a life-changing event like a divorce or moving to a new city can be so hard for parents, but keeping the dialogue open really does help everyone transition and heal.
We have collected some pointers from other parents of children with disabilities and special health care needs on how to talk to your child about 3 major life events: moving, death, and divorce. Each of these (and other major life events) brings all sorts of changes to a family. And there are similar strategies for coping with them, including two-way discussions, compassion, and honesty.
Understanding the death of a grandparent, other family member, family friend, or even a pet is confusing and might spark many emotions in a child – from anger to anxiety, to grief or acting like they don’t care what happened. It’s important to remember that their grief, however expressed, is powerful and part of the healing process.
We have outlined some tools to help your child accept and understand what has happened:
Moving is another life change that can be confusing for your child. For children with disabilities or special health care needs, packing things into boxes and saying goodbye to a house and friends might be overwhelming. But you also hope that it is a great adventure for your family, which includes making new friends, exploring new places, and getting to know a new neighborhood or city. Talking about some of the exciting things coming in the future can reassure a child that the move is an adventure worth taking.
With younger children, try to keep explanations simple. It’s sometimes helpful to use toy trucks and other props to create a story about how the move will happen. Also, let your child know that you are not throwing away their possessions, only packing them into boxes to unpack later.
If your child is a teenager, they need a different sort of support. They might have established friends, or a move could mean they miss something important like the prom. Teens need to know that you hear their concerns and you respect them. Just like with younger children, you can take away some of their fears by helping them find out about their new school and city, meeting people, and learning about their classes.
Consider using a “social story” to help your child understand major life events. Social stories, which are told about specific events, explain step-by-step what will happen and reduce a child’s anxiety.
There are hundreds of social stories online (see links below), but consider using them as a guide to write and draw your own. Only a parent can tell their family’s story with the compassion and details children find comforting.
Social stories are not for presenting the big picture, for example, about why parents divorce or why Mom is getting married again. They are smaller, specific stories. You can explain the divorce in a few smaller stories, including how your child will get back and forth between houses, where the family pet will live, and how bedtime routines might differ at each house. Generally, teens are too mature for social stories, but driving around with them in a new neighborhood, for example, and talking about places to explore is another type of storytelling that shows you care.
These stories are not meant to change a child’s behavior; they give accurate details about an event and a preview. If your child has a chance to learn about 1 day or a piece of a life change, they might have an easier time with the whole concept over time.