How to Tell Your Kids About Estranged, Unsafe, or Toxic Family

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
December 11, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Maria’s father was very close with her eight-year-old son, Felix. Christmas was his favourite time of year because his grandfather would take Felix skating, out for hot chocolate, and to the movie theatres during his school break. 

This Christmas was going to be different. Maria’s father relapsed. She knew her father wasn’t safe to be around at the moment because he was aggressive when he drank. 

Maria’s heart broke for her son. How was she going to explain this to him in a way that he could understand, while preserving the relationship Felix had with his grandfather?

Parents like Maria inspired this blog. It’s hard to know what to say or how to respond to children who need to know or ask about estranged, unsafe, or toxic family. 

This blog covers a few of the strategies I encouraged Maria to use when she needed support having a tricky conversation with her son.

What to Expect When Discussing Tricky Family Dynamics With Kids

Anticipate Outbursts   

Separation from a loved one, whether it’s temporary or permanent, can trigger feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. Anticipate big eruptions of feelings; expect more tears, bedtime battles, and tantrums. 

This doesn’t mean we give them permission to hit, scream, or throw their toys. But, it does help us understand what their behaviour is trying to communicate, and we can give them an extra measure of patience and compassion during this time. 

Anticipate Curiosity  

Children are naturally curious, and you can expect that they’re going to have a lot of questions. Here are a few questions Maria might anticipate from her eight-year-old son Felix: 

  • Why isn’t Grandpa going to be at Christmas this year?
  • Did I do something wrong? Is Grandpa mad at me?
  • When will I get to see Grandpa again? 

Make a list of questions you think your child is going to ask. Prepare answers to these types of questions in advance. You can practice reciting them in the mirror, with a trusted adult, or with a counsellor to help you respond to tough questions with confidence. 

If you don’t have an answer, it’s okay to tell your child that you need some time to think (but be sure that you come back to them with an answer).

How to Discuss Tricky Family Dynamics With Kids

It’s important to step into these conversations prepared. The more confident we are (or appear to be), the more secure our children can feel during these discussions. 

Set a Designated Time

Start by setting a designated time to talk. For adults, this gives you the opportunity to plan what you’re going to say and prepare for questions. For our kids, setting aside a specific time and place to approach these discussions helps promote the feeling of safety. When kids feel safe, they’re able to process their thoughts and feelings and ask questions. It’s helpful to avoid having these conversations before school, a playdate, or bedtime.

Use Age-Appropriate Language & Tools

It can be hard to know what to say, how to say it, and how much to share, but first and foremost, you’ll want to keep it age-appropriate. The examples below demonstrate age-appropriate ways to talk to children about tricky topics. 

Toddlers (Ages 1-3): One of the best ways to help toddlers understand tricky concepts is through play. Grab your child’s favourite toys and role-play situations that resemble your own family dynamic to gently introduce tricky topics. 

“Baby giraffe can’t see Grandpa giraffe right now. It’s not safe. This makes the baby giraffe really sad. He cries when he’s sad, and that’s okay.”

Preschoolers (Ages 3-5): Storytelling is a powerful tool for tackling these tricky conversations with preschoolers. You can tell a story or read a storybook together.  

“Remember the time mommy separated you from Tommy when he was having a hard time playing safely? Sometimes, this happens to adults too. Right now, Mommy needs some space from Auntie to keep us safe. Do you have any questions about this?”

School-Aged Children (Ages 6-12): For older children, you can be more direct. Focus on the facts, delivering them in a way that is gentle, straightforward, and compassionate. 

“Grandma isn’t a safe person to be around, so we don’t see or talk to her anymore, even on the holidays. This is called being estranged. I want you to know this has nothing to do with you. Grandma loves you very much. You can come to me any time if you want to ask questions or talk more about this.”

Take a Break

Tackling tricky topics can feel heavy. It makes sense if it feels like too much to tackle at one time. If you’re getting stuck or feeling overwhelmed, you can pause or take a break. It’s better to be thoughtful and confident in your approach than to rush into an answer. This might sound like: 

“I’m noticing this conversation’s feeling tricky for both of us. I think it would be best for us to press “pause” and come back to this discussion tomorrow afternoon.”

How to Respond to Big Feelings and Tricky Questions

Validate Feelings 

One of the most important aspects of supporting children through difficult family dynamics is validating their feelings. Children need to feel heard, understood, and reassured. We need to create room for all their emotions, even if they don’t make sense to us.

“I can see this is really upsetting for you. That makes so much sense. You love Grandpa, and you’re really sad that he’s not going to be at Christmas.”

Make Room for Tears

Making room for tears is important for a child’s emotional well-being. Tears are a sign that your child’s doing the important work of feeling their sadness around this circumstance. Avoid talking too much or trying to “fix” the tears. Focus on making sure they’re safe and being with them. 

If there are no tears, this doesn’t mean your child isn’t upset. Sometimes, tricky topics take time for kids to process. In this case, children need us to help them find their tears. This might be as simple as doing a bedtime check-in before they go to sleep at night. Questions like, “Did anything feel tricky today?” might stir up some tears that a child has been holding onto.

2 Ways to Nurture Safe Relationships 

Safe and healthy relationships with caring adults are essential to a child’s growth and development. This is especially true for children in families with complex dynamics. When a child is struggling to grapple with the loss of a close family relationship or feeling anxious about the separation from a relative who might be unsafe or toxic, we need to ensure that the other caretakers in their life are signalling to the child that they are safe, loved, and cared for. 

1. Build in Extra Connection 

One way to make kids feel safe, loved, and cared for is to set aside time for them. This can simply be adding tiny moments of connection throughout the day.

Here are a few ways Maria built in more connection time throughout the week with her son:

  • Wrote a love note and put it in her son’s lunch box or pocket before school
  • Invited her son to make a special dinner together once a week
  • Added a bedtime check-in to their evening routine  

Any way you can signal to a child that you see them and are there to provide for their needs is going to sustain them as they navigate the emotions that come with family conflict. 

2. Build Their Attachment Village 

An attachment village is a group of people a child feels a sense of belonging and connection with, such as extended family, neighbours, and family friends. This village is vital because the more safe, loving, and healthy adults a child has supporting them, the more equipped a child is to cope with adversity. When one relationship is strained, or lost, consider promoting other safe relationships.

Since Maria’s son spent a significant amount of time playing hockey, she made an extra effort to make connections between her son and his coaches to promote those relationships.

“Did you know your head coach was the same number as you when he played hockey!” 

“Your coaches told me they loved having you on the team.”

Maria hosted Felix’s coach and his family for dinner. This was one way she helped to build connections with the other safe and trusted adults in her son’s life. 

These relationships are not intended to replace an estranged, unsafe, or toxic family member. Instead, it’s an opportunity to foster a village of support for your child so they can get the measure of care they need when they’re apart from you and facing tricky situations.

Final Thoughts 

It’s important to set realistic expectations for your kids during this time and respond to their big feelings or behaviours with empathy. 

By nurturing the relationship through honest, open dialogue, addressing questions with compassion, and giving children the space to release their tears, parents can help their children build resilience in the face of estranged family dynamics. By guiding them through this challenging landscape, we can provide them with the necessary tools to navigate relationships throughout their lives. 

Note: If you need some extra support, please seek professional help from a trained professional!

Key Takeaways

  • Anticipating reactions: Prepare for strong emotions and questions from your child. Your child may experience fear, sadness, and anger. When they ask questions, ensure to have prepared answers to help shed light on the situation.
  • Discussing with Care: Schedule a specific time to talk about the situation with your child. Age-appropriate language is vital, and sometimes using their favourite toys to visualize the scenario can help. Remember, it’s okay to pause if the conversation becomes overwhelming and continue later.
  • Validation and Support: Help your child process their feelings by validating them. This can be done by reassuring them that it is okay and normal to feel upset or confused. Make sure they understand their feelings are heard and that it’s healthy to express them.
  • Fostering Connection: In an uneasy time like this, ensure your child feels loved and cared for. This can be done by spending quality time with them and doing things they enjoy.
  • Building an Attachment Village: Ensuring your child has a strong support system outside of immediate family is vital. Encourage bonding with safe and trusted adults in your child’s life, like teachers, neighbours, or the parents of their friends.
  • Seek Professional Help If Needed: If you find it challenging to navigate this situation or if your child has a hard time accepting the circumstances, don’t hesitate to seek help from a trained professional.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.