Talking with Children about Difficult Topics
All parents are driven by an overwhelming need and desire to protect their children. We believe our job is to keep them safe and to make life as stress free for them as we can while they are young.
Many parents do their best to keep their children away from shocking news or information that might scare them, so they can help them hold on to the idea that the world is a wonderful, safe place where most people are good.
There are also many other parents who feel that the world is so full of risks and predators that they must teach their children from a very young age to be wary of all strangers, and to be constantly vigilant to remain free from harm. These parents are anxious about how vulnerable their children are, and are acutely aware of the risks encountered in everyday life.
Either of these approaches to protecting our children can lead us to avoid talking with them about difficult topics altogether, such as war and violence, sexuality, family conflict, money, illness, and death.
Child development research, as well as years of experience working directly with children and families, has led me to believe that honesty and open dialogue with our children around difficult topics serves them best.
Children have an innate, almost uncanny ability to perceive confusion, anxiety, or sadness in the people around them. They also quickly become aware of when there is a crisis in their family, community, or in the larger world.
When you are struggling with any kind of issue, be it personal or outside the family, it is almost guaranteed that your child will know something is amiss, even if they have no idea what the problem is. Some children will ask questions and try to get more information to reach understanding. Other children might be just as likely to withdraw, feel confused and anxious, or do their best to ignore anything they are feeling or hearing that they don’t understand.
A big mistake that so many of us make with our children is to avoid topics and keep information secret, not realizing that we can talk with them about almost anything as long as the language used and the concepts presented are appropriate for the child’s developmental stage.
Below is a great process to follow when talking with children, ages 3-10, about difficult topics, along with some sample language:
- Ask your child what she knows already.—”What did you hear about the boy in the other kindergarten who is sick?” Or, “Did you notice mommy was upset when she came home from work?”
- Clarify and give information, but not too much.—”The boy has a very bad illness so he needs a lot of help from the doctors and nurses. But he is so sick even they may not be able to help him” Or, “I was very sad yesterday because the people in charge at my work decided I won’t be working there anymore. I am very disappointed to not have my job.”
- Answer questions your child may have and offer reassurance.—”I don’t know when the boy will come back to school. He needs lots of care and medicine, so it might be a long time. But everyone is working hard to help him.” Or, “I feel really bad about losing my job and it will take me a little while to feel better. But I know after a while I will find a new job that I will like even more than this one! Even if I don’t have a job right now, we have enough money for the things we need.”
- Check in with your child periodically to ask if they have any new questions, or provide new information when appropriate.
Using this process allows children to grapple with difficult topics and situations with courage and a search for understanding. It reassures them that their parents are available, honest, and safe people with whom they can share their feelings. It strengthens the whole family to have opportunities to face challenges together, and to seek comfort and solutions together.
If you need some support to talk to your child about a difficult topic, please contact us at Parents Place. Our professional staff can help!
Karen Friedland-Brown, MA, is the Director of Parents Place on the Peninsula.