Talking with Kids about Unsafe Family Members

As a child therapist (and as a human with a family of my own) it’s not uncommon for me to hear about situations in which a family member is behaving in unsafe ways. Often, one or both parents will be looking for tips to help them discuss the issue with their children or teens, and I consider that conundrum to be right up my alley. Maybe the loved one is being physically violent, or is being emotionally hurtful with their words and actions. Maybe the person has substance abuse or mental illness that leads them to behave in confusing, bizarre ways. Whatever the particulars of a situation are, it IS possible to discuss them delicately with children.

Here are some pointers for having a tough conversation with your child or teen:

Prepare, Don’t Panic

If you’re facing a tough conversation with your child, brainstorm any questions you anticipate them asking so that you have plenty of time to think through a careful response. If you still get blindsided, don’t let your discomfort overwhelm you. Instead, it’s okay to buy yourself time by saying, “That’s a really good question. Let me think about that / look into that and I’ll get back to you later.” (And then make sure you do! Don’t simply let time pass and hope they forget about it.)

Be honest without destroying others’ character

Don’t attempt to sweep things under the rug or make situations sound better than they are. However, you also want to be respectful of any positive feelings your child may have for the family member! It’s possible to acknowledge the upsetting things your child has seen or heard without ruining their view of, or relationship with, a loved one.

Okay the feeling, not the behavior.

Example: “Papa is having a hard time handling his big feelings, so he yells and hits. It’s okay for Papa to feel angry, but not okay to hit others. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

If you don’t know an answer, admit it

It’s better to be truthful than to try to make something up and get it wrong. It’s okay to say you don’t know in the moment – but don’t stop there! Let your child know you’ll find out an answer as soon as you can, if possible. If a question is truly unanswerable, validate the confusion and frustration that comes with that.

Example: “I understand you want to know where Aunt Jean is living so we can send her a letter. I’m sorry buddy, I truly don’t know where she is. If Aunt Jean calls, I promise to get her address so that we can send something right away. It’s okay to feel frustrated about this.”

Go slow

During painful conversations, make your responses brief and give your child time to process and ask follow-up questions. It’s not helpful to lecture for long periods. You may also find yourself answering the same questions over and over as time goes on. This is normal, as kids learn through repetition.

Ensure their safety

Kids and teens who’ve seen their loved ones behave in confusing, frightening ways need to be reassured that you’ll keep them safe. Even if kids don’t voice these worries, they’re often thinking about them! This includes emotional safety in addition to physical.

Example: “Grandma can’t visit us until she can learn to control her big feelings. It’s my job to keep you safe, and she’s not being safe right now.”

Validate ALL feelings

It’s valid for your child to experience confusion, anger, hurt, and stress when there’s a challenging situation at home. Don’t be surprised if your child is sad about not getting to see a violent family member, or expresses anger at you for trying to protect them. It’s also extremely common for children to experience guilt and self-blame about family conflict, even when we adults have done nothing to give them that impression. Be understanding, but hold firm on the boundaries.

Example: “I know you miss Uncle Jay. It’s okay to feel sad and confused about this. We’ll see him again when he’s ready to be safe again.”

Here are some more examples so you can see different ways of wording things:

Question: Why did Grandpa hit Daddy?
(NOT HELPFUL): “Oh, they were just playing around! There’s nothing to worry about.”
(HELPFUL): “Grandpa got very angry, and didn’t know a better way to handle it. It’s NOT okay that he hit Daddy.”

Question: Why can’t we see Mom right now?
(NOT HELPFUL): “Mom’s just gone on a long trip. We’ll see her when she gets back.”
(HELPFUL): “Mom is having a hard time right now and is saying hurtful things. We’ll see her when she feels better.”

Question: Why was Cousin David saying all that weird stuff at the family reunion?
(NOT HELPFUL): “Oh, don’t listen to Cousin David. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
(HELPFUL): “Cousin David has a mental illness called _____________. It can make him feel very confused sometimes, so he says things that aren’t necessarily true. You can always tell me if he says something that worries you.”

Question: Why are we staying at Aunt Kate’s and not at our own home?
(NOT HELPFUL): “Because it’s fun to stay at Aunt Kate’s! Why would you want to go home when you have your cousins here to play with?”
(HELPFUL): “Dad was acting in ways that aren’t safe for us. We’re staying at Aunt Kate’s while Dad gets some help. It’s okay to miss him.”

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