Feelings with a Capital "F"

I have seen adults go to extreme lengths to keep children from experiencing negative emotions, like anger, sadness, confusion, and anxiety. We hear such stories on TV – they can be almost comical, like the always popular “replacing the dead fish with a new one” storyline or the “the dog lives on a farm now” plot - but in the end the adults usually have to tell the truth, the difficult stuff is glossed over, and the episode ends with a group hug.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the TV world. We live in the real world where feelings are messy, yucky, and complicated. And protecting your children from difficult experiences is not a storyline; it’s a real issue that families deal with.

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It is understandable that adults want to protect children. It is our natural instinct. Having to tell a child that someone they care about is dying or has died is one of life’s most difficult situations. Still, we know that loss is an inevitable part of life, and learning how to handle the feelings that come with loss is immensely important. Adults must learn to let children have all of their feelings.

Emotion-phobic culture and childhood development

Generally, when someone is sick and dying, we have a lot of feelings. These feelings fall under the umbrella of “grief” because they are related to a loss. Our feelings range from sadness to anger to relief. All feelings are normal, but often we do not verbalize them. They remain stored inside, gnawing away at us. The feelings build up and either explode out in a culminating moment or leak through into our day-to-day interactions.

This is a typical approach to emotions in our culture. However, we do not start out this way. At the beginning of their lives children do not know which emotions to hide and which to show. As children develop emotionally and socially they learn social norms, which are accomplished through observation and trial and error.

Learning social norms can be confusing for children when death becomes part of the conversation. Take, for example, the case of a four year old child listening to their daddy and a family friend talk about the mother’s recent diagnosis. The cancer has spread and is now inoperable. The doctor informed the family that chemo is not working and it may be time to consider palliative care. The daddy lowers his voice and huddles closer to the friend, sharing the news.

The message the child receives: Why did the grownups start whispering when they began talking about mommy’s cancer? Is cancer a scary word? Is it a bad word? Should I not talk about it? What is ‘terminal’? Why is it scary?  

Next, daddy starts crying. The friend offers a hug, which daddy briefly accepts. Then he starts wiping his eyes, says “I’m sorry,” and begins to joke about sports.

The message the child receives: Is crying bad? I have to say sorry when I do something wrong. Is it bad to cry about cancer? Cancer is scary and I cry when I am scared! I should not cry when I am scared. Instead, I should make jokes about sports.

All communication is a message about our emotions and beliefs. Children absorb these messages, but do not have the capacity to deeply analyze their meanings. Children do not develop abstract thinking until around age 12, so up until then they are processing information in a very concrete way. Processing difficult information, like the fact that their parent may die or has died, is cognitively challenging. Death can feel more like abandonment, therefore igniting feelings of anger and confusion, which are common feelings experienced in grief. Thus, without support children can remain feeling confused, angry, and abandoned. The feelings are not the problem – it is the lack of support given that causes unhealthy coping skills. 

How to support your child to have all their feelings

Our society has certain norms about loss and grief that are counterintuitive to emotional health. Specifically, the opinion that people should “stay positive” and “look on the bright side” can be detrimental and confusing for grievers, especially children. Death is sad, scary, and mysterious. So why do we teach children to think happy thoughts during the saddest time in their life?

We also teach children to not share their feelings when someone or something is dying. Adults do this by talking about death in hushed tones. We whisper, within earshot, the updates about the dying person’s status. Children may not fully understand the content, but they certainly notice the tone in which it is conveyed.

Adults, then, have an important responsibility to children when they are talking about death. We are charged with this: to let children have all of their feelings.

When having a conversation about death with children it is important to explicitly tell them that it is ok to have lots of different feelings. Children need to feel felt and safe. After giving children age appropriate information, ask open ended questions rather than yes/no questions. The beauty of open ended questions is that they allow children to guide the conversation. Adults can unintentionally put ideas in children’s heads that were not there, like the fear that the child will not get to say goodbye. The adult’s role in the conversation is to facilitate, thus ensures that children share their true feelings. Additionally, open ended questions should still be specific. Asking “how do you feel?” comes from great intentions, but is too broad for children. They also may be socially programmed to answer that question with a quick “I’m fine” or “good.”

Children may have some feelings that are confusing to the parent. They may be angry at the person who is dying. They may feel relieved or appear indifferent. Some children may not outwardly show their feelings. Encouraging your child to share feelings should be done gently without pressure. Follow your child’s lead – they will express their feelings when they feel ready. Remember, most feelings and reactions are normal. If you set a foundation of openness, your child will know that they can go to you when they are ready to talk.

Lastly, children need to know that they are not alone. Adults can do this by lowering their own shield. This should be done appropriately. Children still need to feel that there is an adult in their life that is in control, especially as they are feeling that their world is out of control. Adults can assist children by mirroring their feelings. If a child shares that they are feeling sad, the adult can share that they are feeling sad, too. Crying in front of children is not inappropriate and can lead to more openness in your relationship. However, a child should never have to feel that they need to take care of an adult emotionally.

It is okay to ask for help

Talking to children about death and supporting their reactions can be very difficult. That is one reason why Imagine exists. We are here to listen and support you at any point in this journey. Our services are wide-ranging. We can role play a conversation, assist in making a plan, and provide more information about how to talk to your children about death, dying, illness, loss, and grief. We are available to meet at our center or come to your home.

If you are in need of support, or if you wish to learn more about Imagine, please contact Mandi Zucker, Program Director, by calling 908-264-3100 or emailing mandi@imaginenj.org