Parenting is hardly ever an easy task, and in moments where you need to discuss difficult topics with your child it can feel impossible. As a parent, you have a need to protect your child from negativity. Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative aspects of life that your child will inevitably experience. Not only that, but some topics that aren’t necessarily negative can be uncomfortable or tricky to discuss. Each parent is different and has the freedom to discuss these topics in their own way depending on their child’s age, the parents religious views, and own opinions on each topic. However, there are some tips for how to discuss these topics with children.
When discussing death, health issues, divorce, or other hard topics with your child, it’s best to avoid euphemisms and discuss the topics literally. This is especially important for smaller children because they think so literally. Many agree it’s smart to be as black and white as possible in order for your child to understand appropriately. This can be difficult when explaining what death is, especially, because so many parents explain that it’s like sleeping. This can cause children to believe the person who has died might wake up, or that they might die when they sleep. We use euphemisms all the time in order to protect children or not be so harsh, but it can lead to misunderstandings about the difficult topic.
Children should be able to have communication with their parents on virtually any topic. A parent is a child’s first experience with many topics and learns a great deal from their advice and actions regarding certain matters. Encourage your child to talk about things like sex, divorce, death, and social issues. These topics aren’t always positive and are hard to discuss, but it’ll help your child to feel like you’ll be open to their questions. Ask them how they are feeling, ask their knowledge on certain topics, and let them know they can trust you. Once you discuss a difficult topic, encourage and accept any reaction they have whether it’s indifference, anger, or confusion and help them with that reaction. Let them know that what they are feeling is natural.
Sometimes parents are dishonest to children in order to protect them or to avoid something that they will not be able to understand. There are too many “what ifs” to have a concrete rule on some circumstances. Honesty is important, but some situations are not appropriate for younger children. Sparing your child certain details about hard situations such as the suicide of an uncle or infidelity as a cause for divorce can be kept until that information can be explained appropriately. Death and divorce can be discussed honestly without the details involved. The important aspect of honest communication about hard topics with your child is to determine whether your dishonesty is to protect their understanding of a situation, or if it’s to avoid a hard topic or unrealistically protect them from negativity.
Some of the hardest conversations to have involve situations in which fault is involved. Again, this is dependent on the age of the child, but it can be difficult to tell your child the truth about why their father hasn’t come to visit, why their mother is in jail, or why a terrorist attack happened. This is a detail that can be kept from a child that is too young to understand, but older children might ask these questions. It’s important to share these facts, and be honest about your own feelings in a fair way without swaying their opinions on that person if it’s about someone they know – like a parent. If a family member is suffering from addiction, for instance, it’s important to explain the causes for substance abuse for a child old enough to understand. This explanation of fault is far too complex for younger children, however.
Some children tend to fault themselves for certain situations, and it’s important to ease this fear. They may not be old enough to understand exactly who is at fault, but they may be old enough to understand that they are not at fault.
Listening to your child is just as important as your explanation to them. Whether you brought up the topic or they did, ask what they know about sex, social issues, politics, alcohol, or whatever difficult issue it is that you’re discussing. Listen to their feelings on the topic and support their reaction, positive or negative, and work to understand their thoughts on these topics. For small children, especially, they don’t have as many communication skills to articulate their feelings – so it will be your job to decipher their feelings by listening to them carefully. Many conversations with children can exist whether or not you fully understand what they are explaining to you, but with the difficult conversations it’s best to listen closely and help them understand and cope.
In truth, each parent knows their child better than anyone else and understands exactly how sensitive, understanding, and literal their child is. Take these tips and pair them with your own instincts on how to explain things to your child. As much as we’d like to, it’s impossible to shield them from everything, and they tend to pick up on more things than we realize. When it’s time to discuss a hard topic, whether you plan it or it comes up organically, remember to avoid euphemisms, encourage communication, be as honest as you can, help them understand fault, and listen to what they have to say. Understanding how to have these conversations is hard for every parent, so you aren’t alone.
Chelsy (@chelsy5) is a writer from Montana who is now living in Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She enjoys volunteering with a variety of organizations, reading with a glass of wine, and playing Frisbee with her dog, Titan.