Children are naturally curious, so it is not a surprise if they ask questions that can be difficult to answer or discuss. In the past few years, there may have been an increase in the need to have difficult conversations with our children. Whether it is a mass shooting or other gun violence, the sudden or expected death of a loved one, racism and discrimination, or the effects of extreme weather and natural disasters, challenging topics are likely to come up in family conversation.
Difficult conversations with children and adolescents can be daunting. While some families may have these conversations frequently, many parents do not know what, when, or how to have them. Even though they are difficult conversations to have, talking about big and scary topics offers parents the opportunity to model how to cope with challenging events and subjects. In addition, talking about difficult topics sends a message to children and adolescents that their relationships with parents and other adults are safe places to share things that are important, hard to talk about, or frightening. Although these conversations can be complex, even young children can benefit from these talks.
Seven Steps for Having Difficult Conversations with Children
To help you have these tough conversations with your children, here are some tips:
- Find out what your kids know.
Start the conversation by asking your child, “What do you know?” or “What do you think?” These questions can help you understand what your kids know already and if they have misperceptions and/or fears about an event or situation. These questions may also help you understand what exactly kids want to know. Keep the questions as direct as possible and open-ended – avoid yes or no questions.
- Be honest.
For younger children (ages two to six), keep the conversation simple and factual. You do not have to provide children with graphic or unsettling details of an event, but it is always okay to provide them with developmentally appropriate information. Children often understand more than we think. However, statements such as “Someone made a really bad choice, hurt people, and got in trouble” can be enough information for a young child. The older the child, the more information and dialogue you will have with them. Older children will likely have more questions about situations or events.
- Be okay with saying “I don’t know.”
As parents, we do not always have the answers and it is okay to admit that: “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer.” In these moments, it is more important to listen and validate your child’s feelings than try to come up with an answer. Sometimes, you may even be able to look for answers together.
- Allow space for expressing feelings and asking more questions.
Big topics come with many emotions. Give your child space and time to talk about their feelings. Validate their emotions by making statements such as, “It is scary” or “It is sad.” Children and adolescents may not always have the same opinions and feelings as their parents do, and that is okay. Younger children may bring up the event or topic when you least expect it. It is important to give them the space to talk about it and validate their feelings. If you are in a public space and are uncomfortable with having the discussion, acknowledge their question. Say something like, “You want to know more about…”, and let them know that you will talk about it in a different setting. Then make sure to talk about it later!
- Provide reassurance.
As scary and challenging as these topics can be, it is important to provide children and adolescents with reassurance. Let kids know that you work hard and do your best to keep your family and environment healthy and safe.
- Be mindful of your own emotions and biases.
These conversations are difficult for a reason. Be mindful of your own emotions and biases. It is fine to tell your kids that you are also having a difficult time. If you are overwhelmed by a topic, it is okay to take some time and come back to the conversation when you are feeling calmer. Often, your feelings and biases about certain topics are the reason these conversations become overwhelming. Being more aware of your own feelings and biases can help you understand why the conversation is difficult and help you better prepare to have these conversations.
- Know when to ask for help.
Lastly, it is okay to ask for help. When you are not sure how to talk about a subject or you are concerned about your child’s response to situations or conversations, do not hesitate to reach out to a licensed mental health professional.
As difficult as these conversations can be, most of the time, parents have all the tools they need to have them constructively. Above all, remember to be honest and try to use a calm and reassuring tone with your children.