Talking About Hard and Scary Things With Your Kids

Photo courtesy Allie Zingaro Photography

A few weeks ago, I took our 8-year-old to the doctor for his annual physical. While we were there, his doctor remarked how happy and well-adjusted he was, given all that was going on in the world. She and I exchanged a knowing look, because we both remembered a hard season in which that hadn’t been true — and we both were celebrating that he had made it through to the other side of that.

Three years ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31. I’ve written about that before, but what I haven’t talked about a lot here is how hard that was on my kids (and me). Suffice to say, it shook and affected all of us.

When hard things happen, our tendency as parents is to want to shield our kids — whether that’s from a cancer diagnosis, a global pandemic, unrest in our country, divorce, or the death of a loved one. And to a certain degree, we can shield them, especially when they’re young. But as they get older and more aware and able to ask questions, it’s helpful to think through how to have conversations about those hard things.  

I am by no means an expert — and sometimes you need an expert or professional counselor! But here are some of the things we found to be helpful in our family: 

Talk about what you know — and not what you are afraid of.

For us, that meant we talked about how Daddy had a tumor growing in his chest. (“What’s a tumor? It’s cells/building blocks in your body that aren’t growing the way they were supposed to.”) We talked about how the doctors needed to treat it so that Daddy could be healthy. We didn’t talk about our fears that the treatment might not work. We didn’t talk about death (but would have if it became necessary). We talked about how it was important that my husband get medicine to make him better — and we also talked about hope and how smart our doctors are and how we live in one of the best cities in the world to have cancer in.

We were pretty open and honest with our kids — but in kid-appropriate terms and to kid-appropriate depth. 

Answer what they ask, not what they don’t.

We made it clear that we were open to any questions — and we routinely stopped and asked, “Do you have any questions?” We didn’t avoid the questions they asked. Kids need to know they have a safe place to go for answers. At the same time, we adults possess far more information than they need to know or know to ask about. This is helpful in any arena of life — from where do babies come from, to why do people die, to why did my friend say that hurtful thing. Keep it simple, keep it honest, and keep it an open conversation. 

Talk about what is going to overtly affect them.

When my husband had cancer, that meant explaining every three weeks that Daddy will have to go to the hospital and a family member is going to come to stay with you. The medicine will make Daddy feel sick and maybe not able to play as much, but it will help fight the bad cells in Daddy’s body. When the time came, we helped them prepare for my husband’s hair to fall out. When it comes to the pandemic, we talk about why, where, and how we have to wear masks, wash our hands, and give our friends some space.  

Reassure wherever you (honestly) can.

Don’t promise things you can’t. Honesty and trust are important, especially when their world is being rocked. They have to know they can trust you. But you can and should look for places where you can honestly reassure them. With cancer, that meant reassuring them that cancer was not a result of anything they did. It meant being clear that cancer isn’t contagious; they weren’t going to catch it from Daddy. With the pandemic, we remind them that life will return to normal again. We talk about and practice ways to be with their friends/family and still keep them safe. And we remind them that we live in a country and city with amazing doctors and scientists and we have a lot of hope!

The kids will most likely be OK.

Almost three years out from our worst year yet, I am grateful for the perspective I’m able to have this (also hard) year. Our cancer year was beyond hard for everyone. But now, as our pediatrician pointed out, our kids are thriving, happy, and well-adjusted. Our younger two remember very little from that year. It affected them at the time but faded quickly. My oldest, who was 5 at the time, struggled immensely that year. In the heart of it, battling clinical OCD and meltdowns, I thought he would be affected for life. But even he has regained full happiness with the help of a wonderful counselor and lots of conversations and support.
Every child is different in how they process hard things. But for most, they will gain resiliency and character — and will be OK in the end.
Kristen is Southern by birth but has called Boston home for more than a decade. Unlike most Boston natives, she still really loves the snow and cold. She and her husband have two energetic and kind sons (2013, 2014) and a sassy, smart baby girl (2016) who doesn't have a volume knob and is the bruiser of the bunch. Now home full time with the kids, Kristen jokes that she has a master's degree in laundry and a PhD in preschool conflict resolution — which she uses far more than her actual physics and politics degrees. In her "spare" time, she runs her own business (Murph&Moose), which helps her retain some semblance of her own identity in the midst of motherhood. Her passion is seeing moms feel comfortable in their own skin and less alone in the chaos that is motherhood. Loves: writing, science, languages, coffee by the vat, distance running, a good Malbec, time with her girlfriends, and the rare moments of silence when all three children are (finally) in bed Dislikes: daylight saving time, non-washable markers, and noisy neighbors who disrupt her rare moments of silence