How to Have Hard Conversations with Your Kids

by Courtney Christensen

Parenting is hard, overwhelming, and just plain exhausting. But, there’s nothing more rewarding, especially when we start to see independent little thinkers growing up right before our eyes. Talking to your kids about difficult subjects, whether it’s the monster in their closet or school shootings, is one of the hardest things parents have to do.

Now, though, with 2020 barely behind us, these kinds of conversations are happening at a much more rapid pace. Not only do we have to deal with monsters and playground bullies but also violence on the news, protests for civil rights, and a pandemic. A lot of this is brand new for us as adults, too. I don’t know about you, but my mother certainly never talked to me about pandemics and public health crises.

Talking your kids through the things they see and hear on the TV, at school, or even at home is so important, so here are a few tips to help you and your kids handle those conversations.

Some Basics

The rest of this article will be broken down into ages/developmental stages, but some tips will carry throughout.

  • Be a good listener. The best advice I can give is to listen to your kids without interruptions or distractions. Tell your children that they have your full attention, and make sure you have theirs. It may be a good idea to put down phones and tablets and turn off the TV (unless, of course, those devices can help you explain things a little better).
  • Admit when you don’t know something. But don’t stop there. Your children are growing up in a time when information is at their fingertips – instantly. If you don’t know the answer to their question, tell them. Then look it up. If it’s age-appropriate to share, let your kid look it up with you. If not, do some research and simplify the answer for them.
  • Ask questions. The best way to find out what is worrying your child is to ask. Get details. Find out what they know about a specific topic and fill in the gaps.
  • Know your own biases. Our own upbringing and exposure to media have created inherent biases that we often have trouble controlling. Do your best to keep those under wraps as you have these hard conversations with your kids. For instance, avoid describing people by their weight, financial status, race, or religion. Unless those descriptors are necessary when talking about racial inequality, for example.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. Tell them you understand that they’re feeling worried or scared or angry. Empathize with them. Let them know that their feelings are valid and important.
  • Be their “safe place.” The more hard conversations you work through with your kids, the more they will trust you. Show by example that you are receptive to their concerns and won’t disregard or punish them for approaching you.

Children Under 7

Young kids pick up way more than you’d think. It’s easy to believe they’re ignoring something just because they seem distracted or uninterested. That is not the case. Don’t assume your children are blissfully unaware of their surroundings, especially if your kids are attending school away from home.

  • Turn off the news. The best way to keep kids this young sheltered from violence on the news is to keep the news off until they’re sleeping. Better yet, get your information from other sources like the News app on your phone. This way, you can stay updated without prompting uncomfortable conversations with your children.
  • Ask them what they know. You might be surprised at what they say. Finding out what they know or think they know about a topic will help you decide how to continue the conversation.
  • Use terms they understand. Kids this age are literal, and will take you at your word. So, make sure you use the vocabulary they know and keep your explanations simple. When discussing the pandemic, you can say things like “People are wearing masks because it keeps us healthy” or “A lot of people are sick, but doctors are working really hard to make them feel better.” Violent crime should be treated the same way. “Some kids took guns to their school to hurt their classmates.” Simple and straight to the point.
  • Avoid using negative descriptors. As I mentioned earlier, biases are hard to overcome. Do your best to avoid saying derogatory or rude things about people even if you disagree with what those individuals are doing or saying. Help your children become more empathetic and understanding adults.
  • Make sure they know they’re safe. Reassure your children. Let them know that you, their teachers, grandparents, and other adults are aware of the situation and will keep them safe. Say, “You’re safe here. Mom and Dad love you and will keep you safe.” When it comes to things outside your control, remind them “the good guys will catch the bad guys.” Ensure they know that whatever it is – the pandemic, violence, bullying – they are not responsible for fixing it. Adults are.

Children Aged 7-12

Once kids learn to read and comprehend that information, it’s time to change how you talk to them. Now, they will have more access to information and a better understanding of it. Kids will still need your reassurances regardless.

  • Encourage their curiosity. Answer your children’s questions as best you can and prompt them with questions of your own. Encourage critical thinking! Ask open-ended questions about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Provide additional resources if necessary. Often, kids this age are missing the broader context of a situation. Give them that context and guide them through researching additional information that may help them understand.
  • Don’t lie or avoid conversation. This goes for all age groups, but particularly older kids. Sometimes, when kids are very young, we can distract from difficult discussions, but this will become harder as they age. Your kid will find the information either way – it’ll make everyone happier if you help them through their thoughts and feelings as they learn.

Teenagers

By now, your children’s biases are almost fully formed, and that makes conversations with them deeper and more meaningful. More than any other age group, teenagers are more aware of their surroundings and what’s going on in the outside world. Don’t discourage this, even when the outside world seems a dangerous place.

  • Share your own thoughts and feelings. While it’s important to express your feelings with your children at all ages, teenagers can respond more maturely. They can empathize with you and understand your thought processes on most topics.
  • Have an open discussion. At this point, your teenager can likely utilize the Internet and do research faster and more efficiently than you. (Sorry about it.) This means your conversations will become more detailed, complicated, and memorable. Let them tell you what they know, and respond in kind.
  • Discuss solutions. Young children need to be reminded that adults have everything under control, but that’s not always the case, is it? Now is the time to share that adults are sometimes at a total loss on how to fix a problem. Teenagers are already changing the world. Just look at Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Emma González. Ask your teen what they think needs done to fix an issue, and if possible, help them get started.

All we want is for our kids to grow up to be happy, healthy, responsible adults. While it may be easier to avoid the hard conversations with your children, it is also the best way to raise your kids into empathetic, critical thinkers.

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