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telling children awful things

(40 Posts)
peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 09:47:46

hello, I would really appreciate some good advice on how to deal with this.

My DP has a nephew, age 11, who is being brought up by DP's mother after the death of both his parents when he was 8 months old. Gran is the legal guardian.
His father died of an accidental overdose (heroin) and his mother (schizophrenic) took her own life very soon after.
The father's family send cards but never see him and are not in any way involved in his life.

He has not been told the circumstances of their deaths.

We may have him to live with us permanently (DP like a father to him, very good, strong relationship) in the nearish future, and so will need to have some sessions with a child psychologist, to decide if this is the right course. I feel this should be combined with giving him appropriate truths about what happened. He is very smart, funny and quite grown up - but of course, still a little boy.

Any ideas? Should we do this just the family and him, or ask the psychologist to help? What can he understand at this age?

If this unusual set-up rings a bell in RL, I'm relying on your discretion.

KingCanuteIAm Tue 21-Apr-09 09:51:11

First of all, why do you need to tell him now? Has he asked about the situation at all?

KingCanuteIAm Tue 21-Apr-09 09:52:04

Sorry, that sounds a little gruff, I was asking to try to establish the best course of action (IMO of course!)

morningsun Tue 21-Apr-09 09:56:24

agree [again] withKCIA
he knows his parents are dead but he might be devastated to find out details~be led by him surely and be very gentle and careful.
11 still very young and there could be turmoil ahead if you force information on him[not saying you are suggesting that of course]

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 09:59:54

Hmn, well, I suppose because I feel children should grow up with at least some element of the truth. But perhaps you're right, and now is too early. He talks about his mother but with memories that he has acquired as he was too young to have any of his own. Perhaps he doesn't ask questions because he feels it isn't a subject that gets talked about. Obviously the whole family have been deeply traumatised by these events.

I'm quite prepared to hear, by the way, that we shouldn't tell him now. We're expecting our first baby this year so it's all very new.

edam Tue 21-Apr-09 10:01:58

I'd keep VERY quiet about the circumstances of his parents' deaths if I were you. Even if he asks, I'd limit the detail as far as possible. He's still very young and this is too much for him to deal with IMO.

Why are you having sessions with a child psychologist, btw? Seems a little extreme just in order to prepare him for living with you. (But I haven't been in your shoes so may be talking out of my behind - is your mother dying or something terrible?).

Hope it's nothing quite so traumatic but whatever, since you are seeing the psychologist, worth asking their advice and then thinking carefully about what you know of your nephew.

LadyGlencoraPalliser Tue 21-Apr-09 10:03:52

I think the main thing is not to tell him things that are not true about how his parents died. As far as giving him the true information goes, I think he will eventually ask for that himself, and that is the time to tell him. My instinct is that a child who hasn't asked is probably a child who isn't ready to hear. The main thing is that when he does ask you tell him the truth in as sensitive a manner as possible.

edam Tue 21-Apr-09 10:04:45

Btw, I don't have an 11yo myself but friends do so I kind of know what they are like, roughly. And I did help to bring my very much younger sister up and have clear memories of her at that age. No way I would have given her information like this.

In fact, I'd never established whether she'd been told about a horrible tragedy in her family (she's my half-sister, this is to do with my stepmother's parents). She's now 26 and I only tentatively asked her recently. Slightly different though as it wasn't my secret to share and her mother is around.

edam Tue 21-Apr-09 10:05:43

Oh yes, very good point from LGP about not lying to him. But that doesn't mean you have to go into any detail unless he asks and even then, very, very carefully. What a burden for the poor kid to carry.

sleepyhead Tue 21-Apr-09 10:06:41

Do you know what he thinks happened? We had a similar (though not as extreme) situation in our family when my uncle committed suicide.

My aunt decided that my cousin was too young to know the circumstance of his father's death (11) and he didn't find out until about 5 years later when another relative killed himself and there was a chance my cousin would find out from someone else at the funeral.

I wasn't told either at the time and I know that my cousin who I am close to had a whole story in his head about what had happened. It was very, very hard for him when he found out this was all a lie. It badly affected his relationships with several members of the family whom he blamed for his mother's decision to keep the truth from him.

In hindsight he feels it would have been better for him to have been told the truth in the first place, and to be honest, the story he'd made up for himself to fill in the gaps was almost worse than the truth so he hadn't actually been saved from any hurt or worry.

The child psychologist sounds like an excellent idea and I think you're quite right to deal with this.

Snorbs Tue 21-Apr-09 10:11:40

I think it's great that you'll be talking to a psychologist and I'd definitely raise this with him/her for advice. I think it would also depend a lot on how much he's been told (and asked) about his bio-parents up until now - has his Gran got any photos of them, and/or has he ever asked about them?

I think the best, basic approach is to tell the truth, in an age-appropriate way, but don't necessarily tell all the truth in one go. But don't lie about it.

sleepyhead Tue 21-Apr-09 10:14:02

By the way, his mother didn't tell him any lies but he needed to make sense of the gaps in his own head and that's why he came up with a story. He "knew" the circumstances were bad, and he thought shameful, because of the way people wouldn't talk about it.

Your nephew has been dealing with this for a lot longer and your family may have dealt with it better, but I know in our family saying nothing turned out to be the wrong thing, and not asking questions was my cousin's way of protecting other people from something he knew made them very sad.

solidgoldshaggingbunnies Tue 21-Apr-09 10:16:15

Yup, the most important thing is to avoid any lies. Because sooner or later the lie gets found out, and no matter how good the liar's intentions were, it is a horrible, almost unforgivable betrayal - the people closest to you know something very important about you and have lied to you all your life about it, so how can you ever trust them again?

CMOTdibbler Tue 21-Apr-09 10:20:21

I have a friend who was brought up by relatives in slightly similar circs. As a child he was just told that his mum had died, and then they let him know a little more as was appropriate, but didn't lie - I think this is very important. Getting advice from the psychologist or people like Noahs Ark (child bereavement charity) would be a great idea.

Things my friend has found hard - how could mummy leave us, why didn't anyone do anything, was it our fault, might I do the same. Really important not to diss his fathers family, whatever you think. 30 something years on, friends fathers family have made contact (none at all in all that time), and he finds it hard that their story is a bit different to his families

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 10:21:10

Many thanks for your answers.

LGP i agree about not telling any lies. I don't actually know what he has been told, I imagine that she died in her sleep. His older sister (17) doesn't know either, I believe. Of course, this is DP's family not mine, so all decisions are led by them.

The reason we are considering seeing a child psychologist is that neither children have, at any point, talked to anyone about losing their mother (sister has a different father).

Would this not be a good idea? I'm here to ask.

And what do you all feel about the possibility that he might not ask because it's associated with so much pain.

there is a photo of her in the house, though, so it's not taboo.

Many thanks to you all again.

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 10:21:13

Many thanks for your answers.

LGP i agree about not telling any lies. I don't actually know what he has been told, I imagine that she died in her sleep. His older sister (17) doesn't know either, I believe. Of course, this is DP's family not mine, so all decisions are led by them.

The reason we are considering seeing a child psychologist is that neither children have, at any point, talked to anyone about losing their mother (sister has a different father).

Would this not be a good idea? I'm here to ask.

And what do you all feel about the possibility that he might not ask because it's associated with so much pain.

there is a photo of her in the house, though, so it's not taboo.

Many thanks to you all again.

Acinonyx Tue 21-Apr-09 10:22:55

I think it's very important that he is not told any actual lies that will be contradicted by the truth later (because he certainly will need to hear the truth later). I've dealt with a number of adults with similar histories (2 with exactly the same history actually) who learned the details as adults. It IS difficult and some counselling at that point may be good if he is willing.

I would be guided by his questions which may be triggered by school or questions/comments by friends. Bear in mind that he may repeat what you tell him at school and that may have repurcussions.

In my own case, I was told at 13 that both my birth parents had died when I was a baby. I hadn't actually considered asking but I was getting a lot of bullying at school about being mixed race (which I am but part of this story was that both my parents were white).

At 16 we were studying genetics in biology and I wanted to know how my parents had died. It took 3 months to summon the courage to ask - and in fact they had not died at all (and none of the rest of the original story was true either).

It is very unsettling to shift from one image of your history to something different - with all the implications about the sense of self (which will be a major factor for your dn).

Largely - you will need to judge this particular boy and his need to know and ability to cope. You can be either too early or too late with this kind of information. I suspect it is still early. By all means get the psych's advice but it is just another opinion and you are not bound by it.

KingCanuteIAm Tue 21-Apr-09 10:30:46

I agree with what is posted above really, I would get the Psychologist to investigate a bit into what he thinks happened. IF it is a failry innocent take of "well they dies when I was a baby" because I would expect most 11yo to look at things like that (it is something that has been the same his whole life not a shock or trauma which makes it a bit different). If this is the case I would leave it and just answer questions truthfully as he asks them. If he has a wrong impression of what happened then I would get together with the psychoologist and discuss it.

Some children invent superhero stories where the parents died to save them or some such, this can be damaging because it will be such a big difference when he finds out the truth. Others feel that their parents were bad or did something bad, this can also be damaging becasue the child can get the idea that they are bad or it was them that made the parents bad IYSWIM. Other children just accept it as a part of their history and take a fairly philosophical view. THe role of the Psychologist (IMO) is to establish where your dn is on the scale. Only then can you really decide how to handle it (and, yes, I think it is a great idea).

One other point, I would be wary of telling him things that are wildly different to his thoughts at a time when he is about to go through a massive change in his life. (ie moving away from the people who have bought him up - I know you have a great relationship but it is still going to be a cange for him)

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 10:38:01

Acionyx thanks that's very interesting. I would hate to think he wanted to ask but couldn't. equally I couldn't bear the thought of burdening him with something too early. It's very difficult.

If he does start to ask questions, what could we say?

I'm encouraged you think a psychologist might be useful - we'd obviously take a lot of care choosing one. I originally thought it would be good because if he does come to live with us, Gran might feel she is abandoning him, or that he should not be taken away from the only mother he has known. And she may be right! I just wanted any decision we took to be backed up by a professional. There is another issue in that the mental illness here is definitely hereditary. The children have something of a history of going off the rails while the parents have something of a history of not making any rules. We want him to get through puberty and his teenage years safely and successfully.

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 10:41:17

KingCanute, yes, very good advice on all accounts. I think for now we'll concentrate on finding the right psychologist and let them chat a bit.

PinkTulips Tue 21-Apr-09 10:43:34

don't have personal experiance but my friends husband killed himself last year (they were seperated due to domestic abuse) and she has told her kids that he was sick.. the older ones are being told things at school by other kids (small community) and as and when they ask her questions she tells them the truth... that daddy was not well mentally and this resulted in his death

Acinonyx Tue 21-Apr-09 10:47:24

I was thining more about that Peachy and if there is no possibility of him finding out any other way then that may be a good reason for witholding the information for now. Pschoses are generally always partly heritiable and the both the adults I mentioned had affective disorders. One definitely did not go on to develp any kind of psychosis but the other was still young and I don't know what happened.

The older adult I know was deeply concerned about this issue but she was old enough by then for it to be very unlikely that she would develop schizophrenia. I do think though, that mood disorders in particular are in danger of tending toward a self-fulfilling prophecy with this kind of history. Also, mood disorders often 'fragment' in families, that is, many members have some symptoms, but not all, and range in severity. So having some issues does not mean the full diagnosis is inevitable.

I have this in my own family as well and most of us have some form of affective/schizoaffective disorder which is managed in various ways.

If he is an unstable teen - then this information could be especially challenging.

edam Tue 21-Apr-09 10:54:02

I wonder whether it's worth bringing his parents up in everyday conversation. Not how they died, but just memories of some nice things they did or said. You know, oh, your mother always enjoyed riding or whatever. So they are real people, when he does get the full, tragic story, it's not just about that IYKWIM. (Hoping some of the more knowledgeable posters on this thread might know the answer)

peachyfox Tue 21-Apr-09 11:02:05

Hmn, yes, we've considered that side of it too. The subject came up recently when we wanted to have a baby and DP just couldn't bear the thought of passing on this terrible illness that has affected his father and sister and brother. DP too has only overcome his mood swings by imposing self-discipline and other coping strategies. We actually had (successful!) IVF with a male donor to avoid this.

I do agree with the self-fulfilling prophecy thing, but i also think that environmentally, being allowed to do whatever you like is dangerous when such things may lurk. DP, for example, cannot remember ever being told off for anything as a child (while I can remember little else!).

Edam, I think that's a lovely suggestion, thanks.

RaspberryBlower Tue 21-Apr-09 11:07:12

peachyfox, can I just say you sound lovely and very capable of giving this boy everything he needs. It is difficult, and some professional advice is a great idea.

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