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What Do I Tell My Children About Grown-up Problems?

Adult life is messy, between break-ups, prejudices, money problems, illnesses, and death. In the past, it was seen as pivotal to keep these things hidden from the kids—but now we know that kids pick up on things pretty quickly, and that secrecy often just means that they don’t feel comfortable coming to us about these issues.

First, the most common recommendation, but sometimes the most difficult: tailor your information to your child’s age. A toddler can’t handle the intricacies of the family budget, but can understand “We like to save money for this instead.” Revisit issues over the years and add more information as your child is ready for it.

Turning the issue around into a chance to practice compassion is a good way for children to feel like they have a way to affect a situation positively. For example: “Grandpa has a problem with his brain that makes it hard for him to remember things. It doesn’t hurt and you can’t catch it. It must be frustrating to forget… Do you think if we drew pictures of things we like to do with him, it would make him happy to look at it? Me too!”

One huge pitfall, especially for break-ups, is being sure not to treat kids like your bestie. Letting out our own stress, anger, and fear is something we have to save for our friends and therapists. Small kids just don’t have the capacity to absorb our stress—but do let them know how much you love them and how happy you are to hang out with them together.

Finally, turn to your local library for resources. Let it be the first place you go! Most libraries will have a separate section with “Big Issues” books—anything from potty training, jail, death, addiction, having a sibling born prematurely—they have it all. (In fact, if you’ll looking for a book recommendation, be sure to comment and we’ll do our best to help.) Not only do they have books, but the librarians have access to community resources for every situation, and they are happy to help you find it.