How to navigate difficult conversations with kids
There are some conversations with kids that are difficult at any age. From the young child who walks in on mummy and daddy having an early morning “wrestle” in bed, to the pre-teen who can’t understand why no matter how hard they try they can never get a first-place ribbon in the sport they love. Discover different ways to engage kids to have hard conversations, how to encourage open dialogue and offer age-appropriate tips to get the conversation started and keep it going.
Loui’s three-year-old daughter marched up to her, hands on hips and looked her right in the eye. “Mummy, is it true that babies come out of ladies’ belly buttons?” After a harrowing week of deadlines, Loui didn’t have the emotional energy to think of an appropriate response. Instead, she scooped up her child, smothered her with kisses and took her out to the swings to play.
There are always going to be confronting or uncomfortable conversations people will need to share, whether it’s to resolve conflict, provide information that might hurt another or discuss a topic that’s personally awkward for you. Ironically, it’s often the conversations we don’t want to have that are the most important ones we need to.
Another layer of complexity is added if it’s a difficult topic or when the person we need to share it with is our kids. That’s because as parents we want to protect our children. So sometimes having conversations we know might cause them angst or pain seems at odds with our role as caregivers to nurture and protect them.
But by navigating tough conversations with your children with grace, by sharing openly and honestly, and by really listening to them, you are equipping your child with valuable tools that will help them throughout their lives.
Cultivating a positive, loving and nurturing relationship with your kids will help you to navigate difficult discussions. Anna Davis, conscious parenting coach, says our ability to parent is highly dependent on knowing what’s going on in our kid’s lives and knowing this means having open and trusted communication. “Honesty is the key to giving them a safe space to say anything and to learn to express and deconstruct their emotions and their thoughts where they don’t feel judged or wronged,” she says. “And when you talk honestly about your emotions, they’ll feel safe to do the same.”
Most conversations about topics like sex can be a series of discussions — a fluid conversation you can start with age-appropriate information and build on as your child grows and can understand any complexities about the topic. If you start early and work to build trust, your child will know they can come to you for answers to any of their questions. They’ll learn that they can ask you things they want to know in a safe, loving and supportive environment.
Let your child lead the way
When introducing difficult topics with kids, it’s crucial to follow your child’s lead. Davis says allowing your child to guide the conversation is helpful because conversations are an ever-evolving and unfolding process. “They require a moment-by-moment awareness. Your child might not take in everything, might want to know more, or they might be distracted or not ready to talk,” she says. That’s why taking your time to speak and allowing time for reflective silence is helpful.
It’s also not just talking to your child; it’s allowing them the space to be part of the discussion, too. By establishing open and honest communication and encouraging back and forth dialogue, studies show it’s healthy for their brain development.
Rachel Romeo from Harvard University and colleagues from MIT conducted a study of four- to six-year-olds that showed conversing with adults boosts your child’s cognitive skills. “We think this research finding suggests, instead of talking at or to your child, you really need to talk with your child to have meaningful brain development and language development,” she says.
Don’t duck the tough questions
Some questions your child might ask can be difficult for you to answer. “So, why were you and daddy in the shower together doing a funny dance?” your child asks. You can’t just ignore the question with, “Who wants ice-cream?” or deny what happened: “No, you must have been imagining things.” If you do, your child will either go to their peers for the answers or, as Davis says, they’ll make it up themselves. “Human beings are meaning makers, so when we don’t have answers, we make them up with the limited information we have,” she says.
Then, of course, there’s the internet. We live in a world where information can be sourced with blinding speed and simplicity with just a swipe or a click of a smart phone or tablet. Kids as young as three or four can access information on their parent’s phones.
Unfortunately, that information can be biased, loaded with superfluous or misleading information, alarmist or just plain wrong.
The amount of information you give your child depends on their age, maturity and how much you feel is appropriate to disclose.
But if you ignore a child’s question or aren’t willing to address it, it not only adds a layer of mystery to it, it can also mean to the child that the topic is taboo.
Listen with your heart
Being a good listener is a skill that can be learned. Davis says one way to do this is by active and reflective listening. “This means listening attentively, and then reflecting by considering and repeating back what’s been said withholding judgement, interpretation or advice,” she says. Give your child your full attention, make good eye contact and empathise.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, say instead of questions and advice when talking to children, pause and acknowledge with a few words like “Oh” or “I see”. Don’t rush in to fill a void in the conversation; allow time for your child to pause and ponder and to find the right words to convey their meaning.
It’s normal to want to shield children from life’s difficulties, but parenting also means equipping your child with the tools to problem solve and to build resilience and emotional intelligence. Avoid saying things like, “Don’t worry, that will never happen,” as you can’t have 100 per cent certainty something won’t ever happen. Who would have thought whole cities would be in lockdown in the grips of the recent global pandemic that shook the world?
If you have a difficult topic to raise with your child, reassure them that you can work through things together and teach them coping skills.
The truth is if you aren’t honest with your child, they’ll find out. It might not be right away, but when they do discover the truth, it can erode the all-important trust relationship you share. You want your child to be able to come to you if they need help, not to shoulder things that trouble them on their own.
Sometimes children just aren’t ready to hear about tough or confronting topics, or as a parent you might not be ready to share. If that’s the case, and you find a topic like drugs or violence particularly difficult to discuss, it can be helpful to ask yourself why. Was it never discussed with you as a child? Did you suffer ridicule or shame or have a negative experience? You may have unresolved issues that you need to come to terms with or seek professional advice to navigate before you can comfortably discuss the topic with your child.
Pushing through your discomfort and having open honest conversations can pay enormous dividends when kids are old enough to start contemplating engaging in things like sex. A 2019 study in JAMA Paediatrics of 12,464 adolescents showed responsive parent adolescent discussions about sex improved several aspects of adolescents’ sexual health and decision-making.
Set the scene
Timing is crucial. Choose a time when you and your child are feeling calm and relaxed, not five minutes before you need to rush out the door.
To engage a young child in a difficult conversation, it helps to weave in their interests. It becomes a bit of a balancing act — chatting about something that you know the child loves to talk about, in order to introduce and explain what you need to.
Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien from the Quirky Kid says it’s helpful to spend half the time talking about something the child is interested in, then lead with an analogy that aligns with that. “For example, if you think your child is worried about starting school and loves Thomas the Tank Engine, you could introduce the analogy that Thomas will be going to a new station he hasn’t been to before and it will be an adventure,” she says.
It’s a whole new ball game when it comes to having difficult conversations with teens. With adolescents you need to be more to the point as they tend to breeze in and out, pausing at the fridge to stock up before burrowing back into their cave. Dr O’Brien says getting straight to the point is crucial, or the teen might shut down. “It’s good to have key points you want to discuss and put them out there early so they don’t get lost or bored with the build-up,” she says.
Dr O’Brien adds that when talking to a teenager, if they look uneasy it can be helpful to “respect their resistance”. Say to the teen, “I can see that you are uncomfortable. I’m not going to force you to be here.” By respecting their resistance, sometimes the teen might say, “I’m here now, I might as well stay. What did you want?”
It’s also important not to overload your child with information. Sure, they need to know the where and when if you are moving to a new house, for example, and they need to know that means saying goodbye to the places and faces they are familiar with, but they don’t need to know every detail. Simply explain the impact the move will have on them and that you are OK about it, too.
Have a trial run
If you have to raise a confronting topic with a child, Dr O’Brien says it can help to talk it through with a psychologist, close friend or other parents. “It’s about talking through all of the details, so you aren’t loaded with emotion when you are sharing with the young person,” she says. For example, if you and your partner are separating it’s important that everyone is well supported, and you have resources on hand before you share the news with your children.
When you are talking to your kids about a prickly topic and are afraid your own bias or emotional trauma might weigh in, Dr O’Brien says it also helps to have someone else in the room who the child also trusts. “It’s important not to convey judgement or frustration and watch your tone; you may be unaware that you are coming across as judgemental, so if you think it will help, have a third party in the room,” she says.
It’s OK to say, I’ll get back to you on that
Parents don’t know the answers to all of the questions in the universe, although your four-year-old probably thinks you do. If your child has questions about a topic that either you can’t answer or that you need time to collect your thoughts to feel comfortable about what to share, that’s OK. Simply say to the child, “I need a little bit of time to think about that, but I’ll let you know.” And make sure that you let your child know the answer in a day or two.
For any challenging topic of conversation you share, wait a few days and check back in to make sure your child is doing well. Your child might have been ruminating or worrying about it, or they might have a follow-up question you can answer to help give them clarity.
And when you’re having an initial conversation with your child or a follow-up check-in that didn’t go as planned, cut yourself some slack. It’s not easy to share challenging conversations with your kids. If you think to yourself, “I really could have done a whole lot better explaining that,” take some time to think through what you want to say and try again later.