No matter how confident you are as a parent, there are some topics that are just very tough to talk about. They’re going to make you feel uncomfortable, and anxious and they’re going to be difficult for your child to hear too.
These are some useful tips to help you get through these difficult conversations with your child – regardless of what the subject is or their age.
Tips for Talking to Kids About Difficult Topics
Death, divorce, cancer, the birds and the bees – these topics and many others eventually come up and they’re difficult for parents and kids.
1. Deal with your own anxiety first
Chances are you’re feeling anxious just thinking about the conversation that is about to come up.
Do what you need to do first to ease your own anxiety. Your child will be able to tell if you’re uncomfortable.
Some things that may help:
2. Choose the right time
Sometimes we’re placed in difficult situations where there is no right time, things can happen suddenly.
But when it’s possible, carefully consider the timing of your conversation.
Don’t unload a bunch of information on your child right before school – it’ll be on their mind all day, they won’t be able to focus on their school work or get answers to their questions.
Bedtime is also not an ideal time to have difficult conversations. Again, it’ll lead to trouble sleeping as they may have racing thoughts.
It’s best to choose a time where there aren’t a lot of expectations for your child and you’ll be available to answer any questions that pop up as they try to process information.
It’s easier for children to talk when they don’t necessarily need to make direct eye contact and they have some sort of distraction.
For this reason, driving in the car is a good time for some families to talk about difficult topics. It’s quiet, private, and you aren’t sitting face to face with your child so it’s less vulnerable.
For others, it helps if your child has something to keep them busy while you talk, for example, puzzles or coloring pages.
Consider the location that will be the most comfortable for your child.
4. Being emotionally regulated is mandatory
This applies to both you and your child.
When we’re dysregulated, there is a disconnect between the prefrontal cortex and our limbic system and brain stem. This means we aren’t receptive to hearing new information – meaning your child won’t be able to process and make sense of the information you’re giving them. The Zones of Regulation may help you understand this better.
It also means our ability to model, explain information, and guide our children is impaired.
If you start losing regulation, it’s important to put your conversation on hold and co-regulate with your child before continuing.
Here are 18 de-escalation strategies that may help you if your child becomes significantly dysregulated.
5. Start the conversation with an open-ended question
Instead of saying “Have you heard about [topic]?”
Say “What have you heard about [topic]?
Kids hear things everywhere – they over hear us, they hear things at school, out in public, the media, television and movies, etc.
By asking them what they’ve heard about a topic, they’ll tell you what they think they know and what they’ve heard.
This will give you a pretty good indication of how anxious the subject makes them as well as how much they truly know.
Children often have a lot of misinformation on certain topics because they hear bits and pieces of information and then draw their own conclusions.
6. Be honest and use age-appropriate language
Always tell your child the truth but share the information in a way that they can understand. This will depend on your child’s age and their developmental level.
7. Validate feelings
No matter what your child’s feelings are – they are valid. It’s important your child knows this.
We can feel the need to comfort our children and as a result, unintentionally deny their feelings. For example “Don’t be upset, I’m here for you”
Instead, let your child know it makes sense to feel the way they feel.
“It makes sense that you’re scared, because …..”
“It makes sense that you’re feeling anxious right now, because …..”
It’s also helpful to share your own feelings. They get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on.
8. Keep the end of the conversation open ended
Make it clear that even though you’ve finished up your conversation, your child can come to you to ask questions at anytime.
It takes time to processes new information, especially something big or life-changing. Tell your child that’s normal and okay and you’re here to share information with them.
Regardless of the situation, you can always reassure your child of two things – that you will keep them safe and that they are loved.
10. Seek professional help if it’s needed
If you’ve experienced a crisis or a life-changing event and you’re feeling overwhelmed or your child’s showing persistent signs of stress from the situation – don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.
A counselor or psychologist can help you and your child understand and address the situation in a healthy way.