A friend recently divulged to me that her 8-year-old daughter had started asking her about death. “Am I going to die? Are you going to die? WHEN?” My friend, taken off guard, changed the subject to something much more palatable: “Who wants ice cream?”
Talking to kids about tough topics is never easy. Whether the topic is sex, porn, divorce, drugs, technology, school shootings, body image or death, it’s normal for parents to fumble for the right words or push the talk off for some elusive “better time.”
Still, we don’t want to leave our children’s education and understanding of these topics to the internet, a friend, or some random kid on the bus, do we? So we must have the discussions in order for our children to have the information they need from a source that they (and, frankly, we) can trust.
When talking about tough topics with children, here are 7 things parents need to know:
It’s never one big talk but a series of little ones throughout childhood: While people often refer to some of these “rites of passage” conversations with a capitalized “The,” as in “The Sex Talk” or “The Drugs and Alcohol Talk,” it’s really not one talk at all. Each of these important ongoing discussions should start early in a child’s life in age-appropriate terms and then build and get more detailed in subsequent dialogues over the young person’s childhood.
You don’t need to know all the answers: Some parents tell me that they don’t know enough technical or statistical information about a topic. Other times, they get stymied about how to answer a complicated question. At any point, if your child asks you something that you don’t know how to answer, you can stop and look it up, phone a friend or simply ask for some time to think about it.
You can admit that it’s awkward or hard to explain: After coaching calls or presentations, some parents will quip; “Can I just have you come over and have this discussion for me? I can’t say those words you said because it’s too awkward!” I get it. It can be uncomfortable to discuss porn, sex or death with your children and it can be triggering to talk about heated issues like school shootings or divorce. You can admit this and point out.
You are the right person to discuss these topics: There’s a reason you, as your child’s parent, are the best person to convey this information – you know your child best! You know what your child can handle, you can read his/her tone and you can ensure that the conversation stays age-appropriate. While there is no “perfect person” to engage in these tough talks with your child, there is no need for perfect when you keep the door open, stay present and respond to your child’s concerns and inquiries with sensitivity and honesty.
It’s not a soliloquy: Remember, you are not conversing with yourself. There is no need to prepare a monologue. These conversations are exchanges between two (or more) people in which there is just as much listening as there is talking. Allow your child to ask questions and give yourself permission to ask questions as well. Provide room for silence, contemplation and connection.
You can think about it first: Sometimes we are able to broach a topic with our child that begins on our terms. For example, you might need to tell your child that you and your spouse are getting a divorce or that a family member has passed away. Other times, the child introduces a conversation in the car, at dinnertime or before bed that seems to come out of left field. There you are, brushing your teeth or stirring the pasta and your child surprises you with “what does the f-word mean?” or “is Grandma going to die?” When caught off guard, it’s all right to say; “I want to answer you. Give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts and we can talk about it over some cocoa, okay?”
You can have a do-over: When presenting to a large group of parents and educators in Omaha, I told a story about how I answered my daughter when she innocently said, at age 4, that I had a “fat butt.” It was a moment that could easily have gone horribly wrong but after taking a moment, we wound up getting into a memorable conversation about the amazing things our bodies can do and how all bodies are beautiful. I could feel my audience holding its breath. It was then I said; “Now you might be thinking, ‘oh crap! I said the wrong thing when my kid and I had that conversation!’ ” Everyone laughed. Yes, we all mess up. But the thing is, every day is a new day to try again.
The funny thing is that these tough talks seem toughest right before we have them. But once we are in the conversations, something beautiful happens. Our children open up. We connect. The conversations become easier.
And the biggest payoff? Our children know that we are willing to be the person they come to when they have a question or concern – no matter what the topic. We earn our position as a trusted source. And if you are brave enough to have these conversations during the early years, when the stakes are low, you will be fortunate enough to be the person your child comes to later on, when the stakes are high. And that, my friends, will make the discomfort all worth it.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.