Sooner or later, every parent, grandparent or caregiver will face the daunting task of having a difficult conversation with their kids or grandkids. And considering the types of questions children ask, it’s likely to be sooner rather than later. In an age when sensitive and controversial subjects seem to creep earlier and earlier into our children’s lives, you know that difficult conversation with your children is looming.
But you had better hope it doesn’t come before you’re prepared for it.
Elizabeth Drumm, counselor in The Summit Country Day Lower School, says the difficult topics she most frequently encounters with children in grades 1-4 are death and tragedy. “This is the age range when many children have their first personal experience with the concept of death, perhaps through the loss of a pet or a grandparent,” she says. “Children also start to hear about troubling current events like natural disasters or violence in schools. The key to these conversations is assessing what the child already knows about the situation, because we adults sometimes make assumptions about which part of the subject might be most distressing, when really the child is struggling with a different aspect altogether. Letting the child’s perceptions drive the conversation can really help adults know which items to carefully explain and which pieces to leave out of the conversation if they’re not yet relevant or helpful for the child at that stage of the discussion.”
Here are some ways to prepare for that eventuality, and make the most of those difficult – and important – talks that should make quite an impression on your child.
1. Don’t avoid the topics
There are topics that really none of us want to discuss. But, as a parent, it’s your responsibility to carefully and consciously explain the harsh realities of the world to your child. Sure we want to shelter them, but as these topics come at us faster and faster, it’s important not to avoid these important discussions.
Some of the typical topics that might constitute a difficult conversation with your children:
● Anger issues
● Sexual abuse
● Serious illness
Children are naturally going to be curious about these and other topics that initially might make you uncomfortable. As Lisa Flam posted in Care.com, it’s important to create a non-judgmental environment for your child. A child should never feel shame for asking a question or expressing a curiosity, even if and when the parent doesn’t know the answer. Difficult conversations can become easier when you have an honest, trusting relationship with your child.
Ms. Drumm recommends parents use accurate and clear terminology. “For example, when talking with a young child about death, it is recommended that adults use the term “died” rather than ‘passed away’ because ‘passed away’ can be too vague or abstract to children,” she said. “This doesn’t mean adults need to explain every facet of every difficult topic. It just means we should be clear and minimize confusion. Sometimes softening the message with vague terms or phrases can hurt more than help.”
2. Prepare for that difficult conversation with your child
It is unwise to jump into a difficult conversation without some preparation. Children are very easily influenced and, even with the best intentions, it is possible to say something damaging or frightening.
Never hesitate to postpone the conversation if your child catches you off-guard. Instead of trying to answer major questions on the fly, express to your child that their question is important enough that you want to think on it. Say something like, “What a great question! I’m glad you asked me. Can you give me a while to think about it and we can talk about it soon?” Ensure that your child knows you’re not upset or uncomfortable with their curiosity, you just want to give them the best answer possible.
If the difficult conversation wasn’t prompted by a question from your child, think about your personal motivations for having this difficult conversation with your children. Is the timing right? What do you want to achieve with this conversation? Exactly what do you want to convey with this conversation?
Think about why this is difficult. What preconceptions are you bringing to the conversation that make it hard? Being aware of your own concerns will help you to navigate them while talking to your child.
If there is something you’re confused or unsure about, do some research. Write down what you learn and how you plan to present that information to your child.
3. Invite Your Child to Talk
Just as you shouldn’t come to the conversation unprepared, your child should have some advance notice, too. Don’t corner them into having a difficult conversation—invite them to it.
Tell your child what you’d like to talk about and ask them to write down some questions they have relating to the topic. Danielle S. McLaughlin, co-author of the book That’s Not Fair!, says it’s important to be aware of what your child already knows about the topic in order to have a productive conversation. This gives you a chance to prepare answers and it gives your child an opportunity to get into the right mindset for the conversation.
“My biggest piece of advice is that the conversation needs to be two-way; it cannot be a lecture,” says Summit Upper School Counselor Mike Fee. Some of the most difficult conversations high school parents have with their children are about driving responsibilities, loss of a nuclear family (divorce), intimacy with a partner, responsible use of technology, course load and discussion about unsafe behaviors including substance abuse and self-harm behaviors, he says.
“Teenagers will want to have their voice heard as they are seeking their own autonomy,” he says. “A lecture restricts the conversation and the child will simply be offering excuses for their behavior. At the same time, a teenager will seek structure and any restrictions that a parent places upon their child will possibly be met with resistance, but there will be an internal appreciation. Having early, open and consistent conversations around these topics will make the entire process easier.”
4. What you should say during the difficult conversation
When you open the conversation, identify the topic clearly and explain why you chose this time and place to discuss it. Acknowledge that the topic is difficult and it’s okay to have some feelings of discomfort or concern while you talk.
Solicit input from the child. Ask lots of questions and allow your child to direct the conversation as much as possible, while still returning to your purpose and ensuring you convey the important message.
Most importantly, always be honest. While it’s important to maintain appropriate developmental boundaries, it’s also important to teach your child by example that honesty is always the best policy. Children are very intuitive and often know when adults are lying or skirting the truth.
5. Pave the way for future discussion
Encourage your child to summarize what they have learned from your conversation. This is the best way to ensure that you have made your point.
Assure your child that this topic, however difficult, is always on the table. After a difficult conversation, your child should feel that they can continue to share concerns with you. The end of the conversation shouldn’t really be a true end—simply a break in an ongoing relationship of sharing and discussion.
Although kids are curious about changes to their bodies, they feel embarrassed to broach the topic with anyone,” says Summit Middle School Counselor Kara Russell. “This can make for a difficult and often brief conversation,” she said. “As topics in health classes progress, students start making connections with human development, genetics and their own personal growth.”
It’s also well-advised to allow the child to think on the topic for a while and schedule a time to revisit it. Often, questions will come up as your child processes what you have discussed, and it’s important to allow them to flesh their ideas out with you at a later date.
“I encourage parents to use developmentally appropriate literature to introduce topics and initiate conversations, making sure to screen materials first,” said Mrs. Russell. “If parents are struggling to get these conversations going face-to-face, it may be beneficial to start a journal with your child. Posing questions and writing back and forth about feelings and personal experiences can lessen the uncomfortable factor.”
Keep others who matter in the loop as well. Always inform the child’s other caregivers about the conversation and the approach you’d like them to take on difficult topics.
Difficult conversations are often the important ones
While having a difficult conversation with your child is not always fun, it’s often one of the more important times in your child’s life. As a parent, you have immense influence on how your child understands the world. This is a heavy responsibility, but one that you are fully capable of managing.
With the right tools and preparation, difficult conversations might not be all that difficult, after all.
By Jay Cooper and Nancy Berlier
About the experts:
The Summit Country Day School has three experienced guidance counselors who specialize in developmental stages of students. In the Lower School, Elizabeth Drumm has a M.Ed. School Counseling from Xavier University and a B.A. Psychology from The Ohio State University. In the Middle School, Kara Russell has an M.Ed. School Counseling from Colorado State University and a B.A. Psychology from Wittenberg University. In the Upper School, Mike Fee has a M.Ed. and clinical endorsement, counseling, Xavier UniversityB.A., English Literature, University of Cincinnati;