A Child's View: Honesty is the Best Policy


BY: Vanessa Smylie, MSW

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

​Do you remember that age-old phrase you heard as a child from a parent, grandparent or adult in your life? Honesty is the best policy. As children, we may have wondered whether this was true. What if the truth makes my caregiver angry? Will I get in trouble if I tell the truth? In reality, telling the truth often minimizes negative consequences and increases trust, love and openness between child and adult.

But it’s not just children who struggle with the adage—adults do too, especially after a loved one’s death.  Adults often want to shield children from the reality of the death. There may be fear of using the words died, death or dead. These words may sound harsh. However, using concrete terminology with children and adolescents can help prevent confusion and help children realize that this special person won’t physically come back. It can increase their ability to be open with their emotions and grief. “We just want to be told the truth, even if it hurts,” an adolescent once told me. Being honest within age appropriate ranges and your families’ cultural norms will bring trust, love and connectedness to a confused and grieving child.

Give children permission to grieve, as they were a part of the death that occurred. Children seek permission from adults to communicate their grief. Open that door by being honest with their questions. Using simple, honest language will encourage them to come to you with other stressful scenarios in the future because they’ll know they can trust you. In times of grief and loss, children often feel the world is turned upside down and, just like the adult, experience the same rollercoaster ride of emotions. This is normal for the both of you! Be gentle with yourself and, in turn, it may teach the children in your life to be gentle as well.

Things to Consider:

  • Try to avoid euphemisms, as it can create more confusion as a child or adolescent grows older.
  • Avoid using terms such as “Grandpa passed” or “Grandpa just transferred over” as children may wonder where they passed to or if they can transfer over too. Instead try something along the lines of, “Grandpa did die, and he won’t be physically coming back, but his memory is always with us and always in your heart.” You can still incorporate the natural language within your family’s customs, norms and religious connections—but be honest too.

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