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What should I tell the children? When bad things happen

I remember reading an excellent story about how parents can talk to their children when something bad happens. I want to re-tell that original story because it is powerful. I have told re-told it several times as a psychologist in my private practice.

The original author, who was a psychiatrist, wrote that one of his neighbour’s knocked at his door on a Saturday morning and asked to speak to him. The neighbour told the psychiatrist that his wife had recently died. The neighbour said he didn’t know whether he should allow his young children to attend their mother’s funeral, or whether he should keep them away in an attempt to protect them from what they would see. He said he wanted the psychiatrist’s advice on what to do.

I believe the psychiatrist’s response to his neighbour was astute. The psychiatrist said that it didn’t matter whether the neighbour allowed his children to attend their mother’s funeral or not. He said that what was important was that something really bad had just happened to the children. That their mother had died.

The psychiatrist said that whatever decision the father made was going to be wrong, so he might as well do whatever he thought best. The psychiatrist said that whether the children attended their mother’s funeral or not was not where the father needed to focus his attention.

I am drawn to this story because it differentiates the forest from the trees. Sometimes we get so caught up in the details of what is happening that we lose sight of the big picture. The children in this story had just lost their mother. Their needs would have to be attended to, and met, both in the immediate-term as well as over the long-term. That day. The next day. Ten years out.

The enormity of what had happened – being parentally bereaved – was going to influence the children’s development throughout their childhoods. It would continue to affect them over their entire lifespans. What was important for the father to do was to attempt to meet his children’s needs as they arose. Over and over and over again.

I sometimes tell this story when people ask me how they should handle difficult situations with their children so that they can achieve the best outcome. In some situations, what you do in the short term can’t be optimized. What’s important is that something bad has happened to the children.

I have included a couple of stories to help illustrate this point.

All identifying information has been altered to protect privacy.

In the first story, Shannon was a single parent who remarried. She brought an eight-year-old daughter to the new family. Her new husband, Brad, also brought an eight-year-old daughter. Both Shannon and Dave had joint custody of their children with their ex-spouses.

Shannon’s ex-husband insisted that their daughter be sent to private school at a cost of $15,000 a year. Shannon and Brad didn’t earn enough money between them to be able to send Brad’s daughter to the same private school, so she attended a public school.

Shannon told me about this problem and asked what she should do. I agreed with her that there was a problem. Two children in the same family should be treated the same, right? There wasn’t a good solution to the problem because the two children would have to attend different schools. Shannon’s ex-husband had parental rights that had to be respected.

Shannon’s course of action, therefore, would have to focus on the larger issue. That the two children could not be treated the same. That Shannon would have to work very hard, over both children’s development, to try to mitigate the impact of what had happened as best she could.

What’s the similarity between this story and whether the children attended their mother’s funeral in the original story? My thought is that there wasn’t a good way to move forward in either. Something bad had happened, and the parents would have to work hard to foster a positive outcome for the children in both situations over the longer-term.

In the second story, Erica was a single parent with two children, ages 7 and 10. She had moved to a new house two months before we talked. Her children were dividing their time between her new house and their original home where her ex-husband continued to reside.

Erica’s dilemma involved what to do the first Christmas that the family was not together. She wanted to ease the children’s transition into living in two houses. She wanted their lives to follow the same routine that they had had as closely as possible. She had bought her house only blocks from her ex-husband’s so that the children would be able to see both parents every day.

This particular year, if Erica and her ex-husband had followed tradition, the family would have spent Christmas with her ex’s family in Halifax. Erica wanted her children to be with their paternal grandparents, but she wanted to be with her children as well. She didn’t want her children to see her upset, however, and she knew she would be upset if she spent the holidays with her former in-laws.

So what was Erica to do? If we return to the original story, and follow the line of thinking that the psychiatrist laid out, then the important thing to acknowledge is that something bad has happened to Erica’s children. If we stay focused on this fact, then it becomes irrelevant whether the children spend the holidays with their paternal grandparents without their mom, or with their mom but not their paternal grandparents. What becomes important is that something bad has happened. The children’s parents have separated.

Whatever Erica and her ex-husband decided to do would be okay because there wasn’t an optimal decision to be made. What was important was that the children’s needs were attended to as they arose, both that Christmas, which was only two months after their parents established separate houses, but also during the weeks, months and years that followed.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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