Even the most confident parents dread having to talk to their kids about difficult topics.
No matter the strength of your relationship or the maturity of your child, approaching upsetting and serious topics can be particularly challenging — especially when all they’ve known to this point is joy and play.
However, some topics are too important to hide from a child. The death of a relative or a major worldwide event is something they’re going to discover on their own sooner than later —— they may even come to you. If you believe your child can handle the topic, it’s important to tackle it head-on.
Here’s how to initiate and control discussions on tough topics with your kids in a healthy manner.
Consider age differences
Before we can offer tangible advice for discussing difficult topics, it’s vital to stress that how you talk to children about such things is entirely dependent on their age.
Toddlers, young children and teenagers will process information in entirely different ways and their level of awareness should always be considered. After all, you wouldn’t talk to a toddler in the same way you would a teen.
Toddlers lack the life experience to understand more complex elements and topics. Instead, they tend to latch onto the emotional state of people in their immediate family or home circle.
At this age, you have a much greater control of their media exposure. However, you still need to explain things in simple terms and provide constant assurance that they themselves are safe, loved and protected. Think about the language you use and how you approach the discussion, as your tone, body language and message will have a great influence on their development.
Younger kids (of the ages 7 – 12) will be able to understand more complex issues thanks to their deeper relationships, a wider circle of friends and greater autonomy over their lives (leading to further media exposure).
They may understand more abstract thinking, but also sometimes struggle with the seriousness of issues. In particular, challenging their worldview can be difficult. Here you should be open to their growing curiosity while also remaining clear, concise and sensitive to their emotions.
Teenagers, on the other hand, will generally have a much greater level of life experience and likely be aware of someone who has experienced a similar situation.
You can use their relationship with friends, family and media to your advantage to explain more complex circumstances and issues. It’s important not to turn this into a lecturing session, as a harsher tone can push teenagers away and damage your relationship with them at a sensitive development period.
Understanding the particularities of age is crucial when determining how best to approach a difficult topic. The unique personality of your child will play a role in this decision, but age can serve as a great guide towards your best approach.
Be honest with them
Communication is important in any relationship — and that includes with your child.
Always approach delicate conversations with your children with a mindset of ‘honesty is the best policy’.
A little white lie or glazing over some details may seem like they soften the blow — but you’re just kicking the problem down the road.
You don’t need to spill every little detail (especially if there are things your child can’t understand), but you should aim to create an open and trustworthy environment where your child feels they are being treated with maturity and respect.
Being blunt and being honest are two very different things. Don’t unload onto your child, but be prepared for and willing to answer difficult questions.
Don’t have the answers? Be honest about that. You can’t be expected to know the medical ins and outs regarding a family bereavement or the complexities of a geo-political issue — but you can offer up the information you have, your own feelings about the situation and assurances you’ll do your best to be upfront with your child.
One small lie often leads to another and before you know it, you’re tying yourself up in knots to protect the original lie. Don’t do this — children have long memories and can find it hard to forgive. How you approach this kind of discussion can be the beginning of a trusting relationship or the moment that trust starts to wane.
Respect their opinions and questions
Throughout this article, we’ve already touched upon the idea of respecting your child when giving them bad news or approaching difficult topics.
While they might not even be able to process the concept of respect, a calm, reassuring voice that listens to their questions and provides thoughtful answers can help ease them through what may otherwise be a distressing situation.
Encouraging dialogue with your children builds respect. Rather than giving them bad news and leaving them alone to process it, encourage them to ask any questions they have and vocalise their feelings. This allows you to explain the details on their terms and gives you crucial insight into their greater fears — something you can use in all facets of your parenting.
Trying to discuss less personal but no less important worldwide issues? Ask your child what they would do in that situation and allow them to put themselves in someone else’s shows. This is a great way to talk them through something confusing they may have seen on TV news or read in a book.
A genuine conversation is so important. It makes a child feel greater than they are and on equal footing with the adult they idolise the most.
Understand when they don’t want to talk
All that being said, sometimes kids just don’t want to talk.
Yes, it can be worrying to watch them walk away from challenging conversations, but some situations call for children to process and come to terms with topics and news in their own way.
Patience is key, and you’ll always have time to revisit the conversation. Of course, if you start to get concerned, try and approach them again softly — they may well be waiting for you to do so. A hard approach can cause them to retreat further into their shell.
A child will always come back to you. You may have to wait until the next bit of bad news, but they’ll remember that you kept them informed and feel more comfortable talking about it next time.
This is one of the hardest parts of being a parent, but a vital step in your journey with your child. Don’t look at discussing difficult topics as a hurdle you need to get over quickly — but a defining event you can use to build your relationship and mentally prepare your child as they grow.