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Having difficult conversations with your children

November 12, 2018


Written by Jay Reed, LCSW


I recently had an encounter with a teen who asked why he was seeing “bullies” on TV every night. He clarified after seeing my confusion that he was referring to the political ads. In the past few days I had a 9 year old tell me she is scared; when I asked her if something bad had happened, she simply said “haven’t you seen the news”. She was referring to the shooting in California. In 2018 we have an endless stream of information. We can find out anything with a click of a button or by asking Alexa or Siri. Our kids have this same access, often they have greater access they we realize (how many times have you asked your 10 year old to show you how to work your iPhone?!) Children are growing up knowing far more about people across the country than I knew about people that lived one town away. They see what we see, but they do not have the ability to understand what we do...or sometimes don’t.

I’ve spent the majority of my career working with children and teenagers. Ironically back when I was a graduate student I loudly and adamantly proclaimed I would NEVER work with kids or teens. Haha...people and their plans. I have since realized that my refusal to work with them came from being scared that I wouldn’t be able to help them or connect with them. Now I prefer working with people under 18, I especially love those I refer to as the “littles”. I have found that being honest, genuine and accepting has gotten me far when working with kids. The first prinicple I use and share with parents is “I will not lie to the child”. I have learned the only effective way in helping them is to BE HONEST. My honesty doesn’t often win me points with their parents, but kids appreciate my ability to not ‘bs’ them. I’ve also learned that kids want to be heard and included. They understand far more than we give them credit for. They know more them we expect them to and most importantly they can handle more than we want them to. 

Why is it important to have hard conversations with your children?


Frankly, if you don’t someone else will. The older kid at school or the more worldly kid will be more than happy to explain the details of adult subjects to your 6th grader. I have learned some of the most interesting and disturbing things from middle schoolers. They were eager to tell me...I bet they are eager to tell your kid too. Important subjects: sex, relationships, politics, safety, religion, death, and violence should be honestly addressed by a child’s primary caregiver. When a parent asks me how I will address a difficult topic with their child I start by asking “what does your family believe about this?” It’s alarming how many times children tell me “we don’t talk about that” or “I am scared to ask my Mom because she will get mad”. I understand it’s hard, I’ve had many difficult discussions with children....some even with my own.

Now, I know you are thinking “where should I start”. Or you are worried you “can’t handle it”. 


Believe me...YOU CAN DO THIS!


I understand you are reading this blog because you want some guidance. I have some tips on how to start: DOs 👍🏻and 👎🏻DON’Ts: 👎🏻Please do not bombard your kid with information. 👎🏻Please do not interrorgate them to find out what they already know. 👍🏻Wait for an opening, and take things slow. Allow your surroundings to provide you with the opportunity to begin a discussion. Maybe you are watching the news...seeing the tragedy in California unfold and assume your 14 year old is not paying attention (they are). 👍🏻Use that opportunity to casually ask them what they think about that or better yet ask them how they feel about it.👍🏻 Ask them if anyone at school is talking about it. 👍🏻Invite them to tell you what they know.👎🏻 Do not interrupt them, just listen and encourage. 👎🏻Do not react, it’s easy as parents to quickly tell kids they are wrong or judge their beliefs. If you do this, they will shut down and not share with you again. 😎Be cool, just be cool!😎

If your child asks you questions 👎🏻do not sugar coat 👎🏻your answer. Children sense insincerity, they may not know what feels wrong, but they know something you said or did felt disingenuous. 👍🏻Be honest, tell them what you know. 👍🏻Use age appropriate language and 👎🏻do not overload them with information. When they seem bored and disinterested, stop talking. Children often have a low tolerance for umcomfortable discussions. That doesn’t mean we don’t have them, it means we take our time and spread the information over several conversations. I once had a 5 year old ask me to “stop talking” because I was giving her a headache. 😱I missed the que she was overwhelmed and kept going, but because of our rapport she was able to tell me to back off. Good for her! 🙌🏻

What should you do if you don’t know how to answer that question? 


Tell them you don’t know. Adults do not need to know everything, it’s okay👍🏻 to admit you don’t have all the answers about everything. 👍🏻It’s okay to respond honestly, if you don’t know tell them that and offer to learn more together. What happens if your child asks if you are scared? Or sad? Or mad? Well, are you? Tell them how you feel, be honest 👍🏻about your own reactions to painful situations. This helps your child feel connected to you and understand they aren’t the only ones experiencing BIG feelings. Human beings have feelings and emotions, do not 👎🏻do children the disservice of thinking they are the only ones struggling. We all need help at some point, I make sure every child I work with knows that.

One of the greatest tools a child can have when coping with difficult situations is a primary caregiver who is supportive, open and honest. Kids need us to show them the world, they need us to guide and tell them the truth. They don’t need protecting; in fact I heard recently at a training held by the National Alliance of Grieving Children that one of most damaging things we do is “overprotect children”. Take a chance on your kids, open up and see how insightful they can be!  

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