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Telling your child about a parent’s severe injury is a delicate subject that often requires some preparation and guidance. How you talk with your child about a parent’s injury will depend on the child’s age and ability to understand the injury, your own emotional state and the emotional and mental state of the injured parent. This conversation is a necessary first step toward helping your child cope with the adjustment, so it’s best to give it some thought. You might want to consider the following strategies.
When to tell your child
These tips can help you decide the right time to discuss the injury with your child:
- Tell your child as soon as possible. Children can often sense when something is wrong, and they may become frightened if they aren’t told what is going on.
- Wait until you can speak about the injury calmly. Your child may become scared or anxious if you become distraught.
- Be sure to give your child your full attention. Sit down to talk when you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Also, give your child time to ask questions.
- Choose a time when you don’t have anywhere else to be, like school or work. Even if your child doesn’t want to talk after learning the news, he or she will be comforted knowing that you are available.
- Make yourself available for follow-up discussions. Your child may take days to process the details of the changes ahead. Be available for additional questions and conversations.
What to say
How much you reveal about the parent’s injury will depend on your child’s age:
- Be open and honest, and use language that your child can understand. Follow your child’s cues as you discuss the injury. Some children will want to know everything, while others will feel overwhelmed if you give them too much information. Several shorter conversations might be better in those instances.
- Keep your explanations simple and brief for young children. Toddlers and preschoolers have short attention spans for complex topics.
- Tell your child what is being done for the parent. Reassure your child by discussing all the ways that people are caring for the injured parent.
- Talk about how things will change, but focus on what will stay the same. Most children will worry about how the injury will affect their own lives. If the parent will need a wheelchair to get around, explain how the injury will change the parent’s mobility but that he or she will still be able to play some games. Also, remind your child that you, the injured parent, other family members and friends will still be around to help care for and keep him or her safe.
- Arrange for phone calls with the injured parent, if possible. Hearing the parent’s voice can reassure your child. It can also help your child understand how long it will be before he or she will get to see the parent again.
How your child may react
Consider seeking counseling for your child if these common signs of stress don’t go away on their own after a few weeks:
- Toddlers and preschoolers may become clingy and fear separation. Some children return to old habits and behaviors, like bed-wetting or thumb sucking. Younger children may express new fears or have nightmares.
- School-age children may have problems in school. They may have a hard time paying attention, or they may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. They may even become aggressive or afraid that something bad will happen to other loved ones. Your local school liaison can assist with educational support if your child needs a little extra help during this family transition.
- Teenagers may also have problems with school or have difficulty paying attention. Some teenagers may exhibit risk-taking behavior. Others may become depressed and withdraw from family and friends. Read more about parenting and teen stress.
What you can do to help
- Tell your child that it’s normal to feel angry or sad about what happened. Let your child know that you feel sad or angry, too.
- Draw your child out gently if your child seems withdrawn. You can encourage your child to express his or her feelings through drawing, playing or writing. Don’t force your child to talk about feelings but be available for conversations whenever your child is ready to talk.
- Maintain routines. If your child is staying with a friend or adult while you are helping your injured service member, write down your child’s routines and ask the caregiver to follow them.
- Answer your child’s questions with honesty and openness. When your child wants to talk, stop what you are doing and give your child your full attention. Provide lots of cuddling and comfort.
- Offer to stay in your child’s room if your child has nightmares or fears. Let your child know that you are there for support.
- Encourage your child to email, write letters to and telephone the injured parent. Provide opportunities for your child to maintain a connection with the injured parent. This will allow your child to ask the parent questions. It will also help the injured parent remain involved in your child’s life.
- Schedule an appointment with a child and youth military and family life counselor or call Military OneSource for confidential non-medical counseling. Call 800-342-9647, schedule a live chat or view overseas calling options.
- Get support by talking with your unit’s chaplain. Find contact information locally through your Military and Family Support Center.
- Get support for yourself. Check out the resources and assistance available for military caregivers.
Resources for families of an injured service member
The following resources can help your child adjust to life with a parent who has had a severe injury:
Sesame Street for Military Families offers resources to help children and their families understand the big adjustments all family members will make to assist their injured family member and find a new balance. Videos, games and other program content encourage family togetherness and assist with ways to face what lies ahead.
Parenting for Veterans has tips and strategies to help parents with physical or mental injuries and their families adjust to a new normal.
Honoring Our Babies and Toddlers: Supporting Young Children Affected by a Military Parent’s Injury Guide, a free, orderable resource from Military OneSource, explores the issues of stress, trauma, grief and loss as it relates to reunion with an injured parent.
Time to Connect With Family Around Injuries, Illness and Recovery, a webinar offered through FOCUS, looks at the impact of a service member’s injury or illness on the family. The webinar offers strategies for talking with children about their parent’s injury and describes the TeleFOCUS program, which offers resilience training by video for military families.
You will most likely have to return to the conversation about a parent’s severe injury from time to time. Circumstances will change and questions will arise during different phases of treatment and beyond. By following these strategies and keeping the conversation open, your child will feel like part of the process and will be better able to cope with the changes.