Sara Dimerman

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families. She is one of North America's most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books: Am I a Normal Parent?, Character is The Key and How Can I Be Your Lover When I'm Too Busy Being Your Mother?: The Answer to Becoming Partners Again. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for 'helpmesara' podcasts on iTunes or visiting Follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.
how to deliver bad news
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Each month, Paul and Carol Mott, the hosts of a morning radio show and force behind invite me on to the show as their resident Psychologist to dispense advice to their listeners. However, a couple of weeks ago, Carol asked for advice herself. She shared that she and Paul were taking care of their grand dog while their daughter and her boyfriend were away on a cruise. The day before the couple were due to return from their trip, the little dog, who was adored by all, deviated from her regular route as they made their way from the barn where their horses are housed. Surprised not to find her waiting for them as usual by the door to their home, they called her name and began searching. When they heard the screech of tires, their hearts leapt into their throats as they realized that the unthinkable had taken place.

Whether you’re an animal lover or not, you can imagine the devastation that they felt. Not only had they lost a beloved pet, they felt the heavy responsibility and guilt of this happening in their care and the sheer enormity of having to share this shocking news with their daughter and her boyfriend. To complicate matters further, Carol was thinking that her daughter might have become engaged on this trip and was likely to return eager to share the exciting news with them. They were sickened at the thought of robbing any joy from their announcement.

I reassured her that they had made the right decision not to share the news with their daughter and her boyfriend while they were gone. Helping them figure out how to share the news was much less straightforward. Ultimately, I said that there was really nothing they could do to avoid the shock and anguish the couple would feel but that I could offer some ideas on how to present the news in a comforting manner.

I suggested that rather than leading up to what had happened, and thereby creating even more anxiety as the couple waited for what they suspected was bad news, that they share it straightforwardly and without too much detail—something like (while holding their daughter’s hands) ‘I’m so sorry sweetie, Harley ran into the road and was killed.’ At first, the words were difficult for the couple to process. Shock is a normal reaction when awful news is given. Slowly, as they talked further, Carol and Paul were able to answer their questions in a gentle manner and reassured them that their beloved dog had not suffered at the end.

I reflected on this story about delivering shocking news as I recalled the times that I have been with family members when they too received shocking news from medical professionals—and wondered how those same doctors might deliver the same news to a family member. Would they take the person’s hand in theirs as they softened the news with care and empathy? Would they choose their words more carefully than what I have heard?  Most recently, someone close to me was told that the tumours that the doctor saw looked ‘nasty’ and ‘serious’. This was even before a proper biopsy had taken place. And even then, does a patient really need adjectives to describe tumours—the mere mention of which is frightening enough?

Hearing shocking news is always rough, but I advise not to underestimate the huge difference they way the information is relayed can make.

Image of bad news from Shutterstock.

Comments | Tagged under advice, solutions
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Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Girls? The Pros and Cons of Gender Neutral Parenting
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Have you heard of GNP? No, not Gross National Product but Gender Neutral Parenting.

For most, the decision to adopt a gender neutral approach to parenting comes out the belief that we have a different code of expectations from the moment that we learn the biological sex of a child. Raising a gender-neutral child is a result of the parents’ desire to challenge gender stereotypes and to not pigeonhole a child based solely on his or her biological sex at birth. 

In an effort to eliminate, as much as possible, the impact that societal stereotypes or expectations have on individuals as result of their gender, some parents—especially those who have approached this in an extreme way—not only give their children gender neutral names but may not reveal the gender of their child to anyone until such time that it becomes difficult to keep it a secret (when they begin a pre-school program, for example).

The difficulty I have with adopting this parenting style in an extreme way is this: if parents clothe their child in various kinds of gendered clothes—both pants and dresses, for example—until the age at which the child is able to exert free will, choice and preference when selecting their own clothing, how can one be sure that when they choose an item from their closet, that this is truly their innate preference instead of merely continuing to choose what has been their norm? And what happens when, a boy, for example, ventures into the mostly gendered world that we live in wearing a tutu and hair barrettes? When he’s so young and does not understand the consequences of his decision, is this fair?

In her book, Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising kids with the freedom to be themselves, author Paige Lucas-Stannard explores the benefits of raising gender-neutral kids and tries to debunk myths such as the belief that GNP is anti-feminine or anti-masculine. In an article at, she writes that, ‘What we want to do is expose kids to a wide range of gender-types and give them the freedom to explore without judgment those that call to them’. When writing about toys, she writes that ‘If your daughter proudly proclaims that ‘dolls are for girls’ while playing, instead of correcting her, open a dialogue.’

I do agree that exposing our children to a variety of toys and allowing them to select those that are personally appealing provides them with the ability to broaden their skills and interests. So, regardless of the sex of your child, you may have dolls alongside trucks and a plastic tool kit.

When it comes to activities, it’s again helpful to accept that some boys may prefer ballet over soccer and vice versa and to try not to inhibit your child’s interests as a result of the sex that has been assigned to him or her.

While I may not be convinced that the merits of adopting this approach in its purest form outweigh the risks (confusion on the child’s part in regards to his or her gender identity and possible alienation within society), I believe that there may be benefits to adopting this approach in a milder manner.

Beyond toys and activities, we may want to consider the pressures and expectations society places on a child based on his or her gender.

There is pressure to conform on a physical level, such as expecting that boys not grow their hair beyond a certain length or that girls not get too dirty. And there are also emotional pressures such as the expectation that boys not cry, while girls are encouraged to be delicate and more empathic. The reality is that boys and girls (and men and women) feel the same intensity of emotion but many have been socialized to express these feelings differently.

So, if you’d prefer not to perpetuate gender stereotypes you may want to:

  • Consider how you model or debunk them. For example, is cooking and cleaning considered women’s work in your home, while dad mows the lawn and takes out the garbage?
  • Do you make comments such as ‘he’s such a boy?’ or ‘she’s such a little lady?’ or a ‘tomboy’? Consider how these might perpetuate how society perceives boy versus girl behaviour?
  • Is your son free to pick pink and purple as his favourite colours? Many men wear these colours handsomely.
  • When choosing story books, do you consider gender stereotyped messages in the story? Are only men depicted as construction workers? Only women as nurses? If so, you might want to let your child know that both sexes are mostly equally capable.
  • Are you planning on painting your daughter’s room pink? Your son’s room blue? How about something more gender neutral? Yellow or pale green for example.

By becoming more conscious of your expectations and working to change, you may encourage your child to explore individual likes and dislikes without fear of being reprimanded or judged strictly based on his or her gender.

Image of boys and girls from Shutterstock.

Comments | Tagged under parenting, girls, boys
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