When our children were young, I would always joke that you had to have confidence and competence around them. “Careful,” I would say. “They can smell fear.” Children are very sensitive to the world around them. They ask impressive questions about how, what, where, and why (why, why, why, why, why…). Most of the time, children’s natural observation of the world around them is a joy.
But there are times when answering your child or teen’s questions becomes difficult. When your child asks about divorce, racism, mass shootings, and pandemics, it is hard to know how to respond.
This is when your confidence and competence in having hard conversation comes into play. Done correctly, you can instill in your children a sense of calmness, even when discussing scary things.
To be honest, I started this blog post months ago at the request of a friend. I got caught up in other deadlines and this piece sat in my files. While it was sitting there, the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the whole world.
Big changes happened in our lives as a response – I know they changed in your lives, too. School was closed. All sports were cancelled. We can no longer go out and do activities or see our friends.
I am typing this from my dining room table, with a kid on either side wearing headphones, listening to their teacher on a ZOOM call. I hear the muffled sounds of my husband on a conference call in the other room.
Clearly, life is strange right now. Our children notice.
This is a perfect time to really learn how to talk to your kids about big issues. We are all living one right now.
There are 3 guidelines for hard discussions with your children.
Be honest. When your child asks a big question or you have a big topic you need to bring up, the primary goal needs to be honesty. Honesty with your child means sticking to facts, discussing different perspectives on an issue, and being real if you don’t know answers. A big part of honesty during these big conversations is acknowledging that bad things could happen but taking time to explain other more possible (and hopefully less bad) outcomes.
During hard conversations, many parents have the immediate reaction to say, “Nothing bad will happen to you,” or “Everything will be fine, don’t worry about it.” Please do not do this. Statements like this actually increase anxiety in children and teens. This is because, eventually, you will be wrong. Or, your child will understand that you cannot promise what you are saying. A better approach is to be honest with your kids about every possibility, but really focus on the most likely outcomes. Take time to focus on what your child can do to control the situation. This helps keep your child from feeling anxious about the topic.
Part of being honest also means discussing your feelings and opinions about the issue. Make sure to ask your child about their thoughts/feelings too. It’s okay to present conflicted feelings or ideas. It’s especially important to bring up any opposite points of view. Doing so helps your child think critically about hard topics.
Be age appropriate. Depending on the age of your child, different levels of detail will be appropriate. You know your child best, and you can be a good judge of how much information will be appropriate. If you are struggling to decide what amount of information is appropriate, talk to your friends and family with similarly aged kids. If your peers are revealing different amounts of information to their children (either more or less), it is a sign that you need to adjust your conversation.
If you have children at different ages and stages of development, you need to treat them differently. This may mean separating them for conversations about big topics. It likely also means asking older children to not talk about topics with younger children unless an adult is present.
Start small. Repeat. Err on the side of less information, especially for initial conversations. Some parents make the mistake of diving right into a long after-school-special about a topic. This is not what your child needs or wants. Flooding your child with too much information will emotionally overwhelm your child. They will not remember your discussion. The conversation will no longer be productive.
Instead, start small. You can, and should, repeat the conversations later. During these chats, make sure to ask your kids if they have any questions, and their thoughts and feelings on the issue. When you talk about it again, consider adding additional information if your child is ready.
Let’s walk through two examples of how these 3 guidelines in practice.
Example 1: Talking about pandemic
Regardless of the age of your child, they are noticing the current Covid-19 situation.
Remember, age-appropriate honesty is the best policy. Talk about it using examples they would understand, like the flu or a cold. Explain that it is most likely that they will be fine – fortunately, children and teens are not getting very sick with Covid-19. At the same time, you must acknowledge that you, or grandparents, or elderly neighbors could get sick, and that many people will die. Explain that we are staying inside because we are trying to not get sick so that medial workers are less busy. Focus on the most likely outcomes (that you will be okay), while also acknowledging that bad things could happen.
In this conversation, take the time to put power back into your child’s hands. What can they do? They can wash hands. They can help clean the house or wipe down groceries. They can be flexible about schedules and different foods being available. Remind them that there are helpers: government workers, doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, and delivery people. Your own family is helping by staying inside and social distancing. If you or family work in the medical field, you will want to talk about the specific challenges associated with that, including what sorts of things these people are doing to protect themselves.
It’s also appropriate to talk about your emotions and feelings as well as your child’s emotions and feelings. Acknowledge these emotions. Help balance them by providing special activities. Maybe you have family movie night a few times a week. Maybe you coordinate a video call with your child’s friends. Maybe you can organize some fun home-based activities, like indoor Olympics. Try to give your child some fond memories of this strange time.
Keep the conversation short, no longer than 5 or ten minutes. Check in and discuss the issues with your child every few days.
Example 2: Talking about mass shootings
Let’s use the example of talking to your child about mass shootings. Explain the basics of a topic in a developmentally appropriate way. For young kids, this can be a sentence about “Some people try to hurt other people because they are sick.” For older children, you can be more straightforward.
Be honest about the outcomes. With mass shootings, you need to acknowledge that some people will die. Some people will get hurt. But, the most likely outcome is that it will never happen to your child or your family.
Can you promise your child that nothing bad will ever happen to them? No. You cannot. So, please don’t. Instead, acknowledge that if it happens, it could be bad. But the more likely thing is that it will never happen to your child or your family. Mass shootings are not common events.
Remind them that they can take steps to be safe, such as listening to adults in emergencies, using common sense, etc. Explain that lots of people are working to try to keep everybody safe, including schools, legislators, policy and first responders, and so on.
This conversation is powerful because you are educating them about a topic, but also putting some level of control back into their hands.
Finally, keep the conversation short – a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes. Return to the conversation again in a week or so. Ask your child how they are feeling and their thoughts on it. Keep the door open to continued conversation as they work through the big ideas and emotions that come along with such a heavy topic.
Some closing thoughts…
A few more things to remember as you implement these three guidelines.
First, it’s important for you to start conversations if you know they are eminent. If there was a big event that happened, talk to your child about it before they hear about it from friends at school.
Second, it’s okay to delay a conversation. If your child asks you a question you are not ready to answer, there is nothing wrong with delaying the conversation until you have time to think about your response. Just make sure you return to the conversation – lying about talking about something at a future date will teach your child to not ask you hard questions anymore.
Third, like any conversation, this is an opportunity to build closeness with your child. As your child what they think, how they feel. In these hard conversations, your child will learn a lot about your view on the world. No matter the age of your child, take the time to ask them what they think and how they feel about the topic. That way, you can learn about their view on the world. Your relationship will grow stronger.