A Parent’s Guide to Tough Conversations

When you’re little, it’s easy to think your parents have all the answers. The comfort and safety they offered through confusing, scary, or sad experiences reinforced the idea that they had it all figured out. But as you grow older and struggle to find the right words to help your children cope through tough situations, you realize your parents likely felt the same way when they were in your shoes.

As much as we think we can shield our children from emotional or physical pain, the truth is our children’s lives will be regularly touched by trauma and other “bad” experiences—and they will have questions. But being proactive and engaging in thoughtful, age-appropriate conversations can help them find effective ways to cope with their feelings and better understand what’s happening around them.

Tough Topics to Talk About

When the time comes for a tough conversation, establishing an open dialogue and answering your child’s questions can help them feel supported in times of tragedy and distress. And by doing so, you help create an environment of safety and become a trusted and comforting presence.

Possible reasons for needing to have a tough conversation may include:

  • A catastrophic or tragic event
  • A major life change, like divorce or a big move
  • Illness and treatment
  • Bad news
  • Unkind or hateful behavior, such as bullying or racism
  • Strong emotions, like anger or shame

How to Have Important Conversations with Your Child

Create an ideal environment:

It seems universal that most kids tend to ask hard questions when you’re maneuvering through tricky traffic or standing in line in a crowded store—but it’s okay to tell them you will talk about it later. You want to be in a comfortable environment where you can focus, be free from distractions, and openly discuss sensitive subjects.

Think about what you want to say:

Take some time to gather your thoughts on the topic. Whether that means researching, talking to a family member or friend, or simply reflecting on your own thoughts, being prepared can help make the conversation feel smooth and equip you with more helpful knowledge. Practice your main points out loud by yourself or with another adult for feedback and to ensure the information is age appropriate and effective.

Ask them what they know and how they feel:  

In a highly connected, digital age, it’s nearly impossible to be shielded from tragedy in the news. I can remember as a child on 9/11 not being able to leave my house without feeling bombarded by tragic images on the covers of magazines and newspapers while televisions blared coverage throughout stores and restaurants. And depending on the tough topic you need to talk about, it’s highly likely they’ve been exposed to some information already. Ask them what they know and how they feel, and then listen. Give them a safe space to freely express their feelings and emotions.

Be honest and open:

Share facts about the situation while leaving out unnecessary, graphic details that may be damaging to your child’s well-being. If you don’t know everything, it’s okay to tell them, “I don’t know.” And remember, being honest is more than just laying out the facts—it’s also about discussing how you feel. Being vulnerable and sharing your feelings with your child will help them see that it’s okay to feel scared, confused, sad, or any other unsettling emotion.

Be comforting and reassuring:

There will be times when you would do anything to take away their sadness or pain, and you won’t be able to. But you can offer them comfort, safety, and reassurance that you are always there for them and will help them through the situation. You will also want to watch for persistent signs of emotional distress in your child and seek help from a licensed mental health professional, if necessary.

Use books to help support your conversation:

Did you know that there are tough topic books written just for children? A Kids Co. specializes in books aimed at empowering young children through real-life experiences. These books can help jumpstart your conversation or add more food for thought. Some of the topics include:

  • Racism
  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Death
  • Chronic illness
  • Shame
  • Sexual abuse
  • Divorce
  • School shootings
  • Saying goodbye to a pet
  • Cancer and chemotherapy
  • Suicide
  • Incarceration
  • Foster families
  • Alopecia
  • Stillbirth

Although it may feel like you don’t have the right words, simply being there for your child and starting the dialogue is exactly what they need to make sense of the world around them. And remember, it’s important to take care of yourself through these tough times, too. Don’t be afraid to seek help from a friend, family member, or mental health professional, if needed. Because the way you take care of yourself through tough times will help your child know that it’s okay to get help, to talk, and to have big feelings—even when they’re grown up.

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