Tips for Having Successful Tough Conversations With Your Kids

If you haven’t had to have tough conversations with your kids about divorce, the death of a relative, the loss of a pet, inappropriate text messages, school shootings, or other tragedies, consider yourself lucky. 

While they’re little, children are often insulated from in-depth discussions about violence, loss, or even online predators because we think they’re too young to understand or that “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” But the reality is that kids see, hear, and read more than we know, especially now with kids as young as toddlers accessing the internet. And as our children get older, these conversations will need to happen more frequently and with great care. 

As parents, our job is to discern what to tell them in a way that’s authentic while still ensuring they feel safe, secure, loved, and heard. So how can we have a successful conversation about difficult subjects without scaring our kids, losing our composure, or creating more anxiety about the world at large?

Here are some general tips to help you navigate challenging topics during these tough conversations with your kids:

 Plan your message.

Before you head into a conversation with your child, ask yourself what you want to accomplish, what words and phrases you might use, and how your child might feel during or after the discussion. Don’t assume that your child knows anything—or nothing—as they may have overheard conversation or picked up information from friends or the Internet. Whether you’re discussing adults pretending to be teens online to lure children into sending inappropriate photos or the death of a relative or pet, you’ll want to go in with a plan. 

When you’re ready to sit down for the conversation, as much as it’s within your control and appropriate, make sure it’s a good time for your child as well. A 6-year-old who hasn’t napped or eaten might not be in an ideal state to be receptive to the conversation. Likewise, a 12-year-old who’s in the middle of a heated video game might feel resentful if you interrupt and only give you a sliver of their attention. 

Be present and engaged.

Important conversations require your full attention, which means getting rid of distractions, making eye contact, and asking for clarification when necessary. Make an effort to set aside any judgment, even if your child seems disinterested or unmoved by the seriousness of the situation. Some kids aren’t comfortable crying in front of anyone and they may just need time to process the news before experiencing a fuller range of emotions.

If you know your child is uncomfortable with eye contact or the conversation requires you to extract a bit more information from your child (e.g., a fight at school), you may need to adapt to a less-intense format for your discussion. Consider talking while you’re driving, preparing dinner together, or walking around the block.

Ask and answer questions. 

Give them plenty of time to ask questions and answer them as honestly as you can while still providing a sense of security. Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings or to say “I don’t know” if their questions are out of your wheelhouse. 

Not everything you learn about your child’s feelings will come from what they say. Look for nonverbal cues, such as folded arms, breaking eye contact, or shrugs, to indicate that they might be feeling overwhelmed by the conversation.

Check in again later.

Just because your child doesn’t cry upon hearing that their beloved dog had to be euthanized or that they’ll be moving schools mid-semester doesn’t mean they’re cold or callous. Sometimes emotions take time to process and the consequences of the reality may not set in immediately. 

Make an effort to check in with your child regularly down the road and reassure them that you’re available if they need support or have more questions. You can also guide them on coping strategies and possibly even suggest ways that may help them process the situation, including finding remedies (e.g., alternative ways to address a bully behind fighting), saying goodbye (e.g., making a card to bury with their pet), or feeling hopeful about the changes (e.g., researching the new school or neighborhood online).

Depending on your kid’s age, maturity, and the situation, you may want to consider getting them into therapy. Trained professionals can often extract information about your child’s emotions that help you better understand what they’re experiencing. In addition, they can provide kids of any age with coping strategies to help them regulate their emotions and boost resiliency.

Listen for more: How to Help Your Teen Feel Connected, Competent and Confident >>

Navigating tough conversations with your kids can feel like a daunting task, but with open communication and a foundation of security, you can build trust that will foster your parent-child relationship long into their adulthood. 

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