Having Difficult Conversations with Children

 

Mother and daughter at home

As a parent, there are so many potentially difficult conversations in front of you. This may include conversations about transitions like moving to a new place or a marriage separation. At some point, you’ll likely have to talk about the significant illness or death of a close relative. Also as they grow, you’ll need to address sex and drugs and alcohol with something more than “don’t.”

Parents set the emotional landscape – How you present information goes a long way towards how they take that information in. I am not saying be a robot, it is normal to be emotional about emotional topics. However, if you present something as “the worst thing ever,” children will take it that way rather than presenting it as “something we are going to work on.” Here is a helpful post about setting the emotional landscape.

Ask what they already know, what they think, how they feel – Before you start, it may be helpful to ask what they already know. If a grandparent has been sick for weeks, you may have not talked to your child directly, but they may have overheard lots. This can give you a good starting point and gives you a chance to clear up any misunderstandings.

A few well planned sentences – For young children, two or three sentences is plenty. This can be longer for older children but good to make it on the brief side and straightforward.

Let their questions be your guide – Once you finish your few, clear sentences be ready to answer their questions. Depending on the topic, the child, and their age, they may have no questions or they may have several. The idea is they are in need of the amount of information they ask for.

Answer all of their questions, honest and small – As difficult as it may be, it’s good to answer all of their questions. Be honest and answer just what’s asked. If it’s too emotional in the moment, or you don’t actually know the answer, it is fine to let them know you need some time, but be sure to follow up with this.

Acknowledge emotions and validate why – If there is upset or anger, it’s good to give empathy and recognize why they might feel that way. It’s not a time to talk them out of their feelings, it’s a time to recognize and help them communicate.

Offer reassurance often – During and following difficult conversations, children are often rightfully thinking, “how does that impact me?” Even if they aren’t able to express it, the concern is there. Reassurance when discussing school shootings might be, “your school is a safe place. Dangers like that in schools are very rare. It is your teacher’s job to keep you safe, and she has a plan.” Reassurance after the death of a loved one, “most people die when they are very old. I am healthy and hope to be here when I am very old. There will always be someone to take care of you.” The idea is to add reassurance to the conversation and remember to reassure as you answer every few questions.

Parenting books and children’s books – For any life transition or difficult conversation, there are good children’s books available. It can be helpful to search Amazon’s children’s books by topic or head to the book store to ask. Reading and discussing books together can be a base for your conversation or a way to help answer questions. There are also parenting books available for several difficult topics.

Know school’s curriculum and stay ahead of it – Some of these topics are addressed in school. Sex education, drug and alcohol abuse are all covered in school health classes or D.A.R.E. programs. If your children are participating, it is good to know what will be covered, and it’s better to discuss these issues with your children before they hear it in school.

Small conversations scattered across time – Once a topic is open, it is normal for children to have questions over time. As they grow they are learning, being exposed to new information and new opinions. Good to let them know they can always talk to you about anything, anytime. It’s good to keep the topics open and answer them in honest ways as they ask you more.

Calm conversations – For them to feel like they can truly talk to you about anything, you have to stay calm when they bring up the difficult or challenging topics. You might read Screamfree Parenting by Runkel, Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids by Drew or attend our Calm Parenting workshops for help on this. Here are a few helpful posts on calm parenting.

 

Answering Kids Questions about Difficult Topics

  • Stop talking above them – Much younger than parents think, children are paying attention and making some sense of the language around them. Beyond 18 months, children are learning approximately one new word per hour they are awake. They are sponges, assume they are listening.
  • Answer every question honest and small – When children ask a question, they are honestly looking for an answer. If one is not provided, they may make it a bigger issue or come up with their own answers that are often wrong. Giving small answers means finding age appropriate words and giving just enough to answer the question. When a child asks, “why did grandpa die?” They are likely not looking for a full medical history, and if you provide one you are adding stress. They are likely looking for the basic explanation, “grandpa was very old and his heart stopped working. The doctors tried to save him but they couldn’t.”
  • Let their questions be your guide – Occasionally, a child will be looking for a bigger answer or more detail. That child will have follow-up questions, or will want the full medical history. Continue to answer honest and small.
  • For some topics, decide on an age that you will bring it up if they don’t – There should be several honest discussions about sex and drugs before your child has to make decisions out in the world.
  • Couch your answers in reassurance – Support them through your answer by letting them know you are calm and they are safe. Sometimes reinforce the idea that they can ask you about anything.
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