New paper focuses on methods to break hard news to young adults

Emmanuel Briseño

When advertising freshman Daniela Lope-Nicholls was on her way home from dinner with her dad last year, he broke the news that she had a one-and-a-half year old baby brother.

“It was shocking, to say the least,” Lope-Nicholls said. “But then I got over it, because I always wanted a sibling.”

When trying to figure out how to let a close friend or family member know about a serious issue that affects their lives, most people tend to delay or beat around the bush. 

This approach is not helpful, according to research by Erin Donovan, an associate professor of communication studies, and her peers. In January, they published a paper that showed three rules that help parents communicate with their children while keeping their relationship healthy and strong. The keys are providing adequate information, candor and a peer-like interaction.

Donovan said that previous research on this topic has focused on younger children. For example, a study published in “Communication Monographs” showed how parents can use appropriate vocabulary to tell children they have cancer. There was no information on how to break bad news to young adults, even though their parents are at an age when they can undergo a serious illness — the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., increases at the age of fifty-five, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood institute.

In their study, the researchers asked 298 undergraduate students about a time when a parent shared important information regarding the death of a loved one, change in employment, move, divorce or other touchy subjects. The students answered questions about what made their conversations successful or unsuccessful. Researchers also asked if they would keep the conversation the same or change something about it.

Access to information was the first theme that was relevant to the participants. The children said that they felt satisfied when their parents were willing to answer questions and talk about the topic more than once.

The second theme was candor, or being open and honest. The students noted that when their parents were straightforward, they felt that their conversation was successful. 

“I was angry at my dad because he took an entire year to tell me,” Lope-Nicholls said. “It’s time I’m not going to get back.”

The third is that parents should relate to their adult children as peers. The children said that when their parents were “being real” and treating them as adults, they felt respected.

“If you’re in your early twenties, this is a time where you’re becoming much more independent from your parents,” Donovan said. “There’s kind of this idea that you want to be connected, you want your relationship to get closer, but you want it to get close while interacting with them in a way that’s more equal.”