Sharing the loss of a baby with siblings is often unbearable for parents who are grappling with emotions and trying to process the tragedy themselves. “Many parents question if they should share this info with their children at all,” says Dr. Lauren Starnes, a child development expert and chief academic officer for The Goddard School, “but it’s a critical conversation to have if a child is expecting a baby to come into the home and they will no longer be arriving as expected.”
Young children lack perception so their thoughts, ideas, and concerns might be worse than reality. “Talking to them helps them make sense of what they are seeing,” says Dr. Starnes. Here, her advice for one of life’s hardest conversations.
Practice & Plan (What You Can)
As with all tough convos, it helps to think through what you’ll say, plus where and when you should have it. “Talk in a place where your child is most comfortable and when he or she is well rested to maximize their attention and focus,” suggests Dr. Starnes. This means not interrupting their play (at least for the initial convo) and minimizing distractions. Reading a book with your child can help open up the dialogue more naturally, too.
Because this convo can be very difficult for parents, Dr. Starnes recommends taking time to prepare in advance. “Parents can practice with another adult or write down the words,” she says. And if it’s too painful, having another person speak with your child is a perfectly acceptable solution. Dr. Starnes says, “The most important thing is letting your child know and giving them the opportunity to process and ask questions.”
Be Direct, Even When It’s Hard
Young kids don’t understand pregnancy and childbirth from an emotional perspective because they have concrete ideas of what is. Dr. Starnes suggests starting with a simple statement about what has happened and how you feel. For example, I think you saw me crying. Mommy/Daddy and I are sad because we are not going to have a new baby right now. We both love you very much. The goal is to share the important information and reassure your child.
Dr. Starnes says it’s also important to avoid euphemisms, like gone to a better place, and clearly label the emotions to help children understand what they’re seeing and why. You can say, It makes me feel sad because I wanted to have a brother or sister for you. “You don’t need to share too much detail. Be simple and matter of fact,” says Dr. Starnes.
Pause So Kids Can Process
Adults tend to be uncomfortable with silence, but it’s important to resist the urge to keep talking. “We need to give children time to think about the words and any questions they have,” says Dr. Starnes. “They need to think and respond–or not. Silence as a response is totally okay.” Their response really depends on their verbal skills, their own life experience, how much exposure they’ve had to the idea of siblings and how much they knew about the baby on the way.
By pausing, parents also have a chance to take a breath and observe their child. Some children will physically exit the convo, while others may fidget or show they’re actively thinking. Parents can ask a simple follow-up question like, Are you okay? Do you have any questions for me? How are you feeling? to allow them to respond if they wish.
Let Kids Control The Convo
It’s important to give your child control and let them own the conversation. As long as your child is having questions and showing interest, follow their lead but be mindful not to force a response. “You know your child and their emotional level, so trust what you’re seeing and experiencing,” says Dr. Starnes.
Parents should also revisit the conversation at least once because the child may not be sure how to bring it back up. “Young children are curious and it takes them a while to process what they’ve seen and heard,” says Dr. Starnes. “This shows the child it’s okay to talk about and gives kids the chance to ask unresolved questions.” You can say, Yesterday I told you X, do you have any questions or do you want to talk about that?
Expect The Unexpected
Young children aren’t always aware of what should and should not be said. “This lack of life experience can lead them to make statements that are unexpected and may feel hurtful,” says Dr. Starnes. “Acknowledge how your child feels, then explain how you and other adults feel.” You can say, I’m glad you’re okay, but we’re still sad and we might be sad for a while so you might see us crying. Be careful not to negate or minimize a child’s egocentric emotions.
Be Reassuring, But Honest
It’s okay to tell your child you don’t have all of the answers, while reassuring them that their health and well-being are not tied to the loss of the baby. “The goal is to offer honest reassurance,” says Dr. Starnes. “Answer any questions in simple terms and avoid metaphors or abstract phrases that children may not be able to understand.” If your child asks a scary question (such as Will this happen again?), it’s important to refrain from minimizing their curiosity, which is completely normal, adds Dr. Starnes. Answer simply and explain your emotion with the basic facts.