Tips on How to Have Difficult Conversations with Kids
By Elizabeth Einig, MSW, LSW
In this day and age, it is increasingly important to connect with kids about difficult topics. This includes conversations about school shootings, puberty, alcohol/drug use, self-harm, inappropriate content on social media, and more. If you’re finding it hard to talk to your child about these topics, you’re not alone.
While it may be challenging, these conversations will allow you to better connect with your child and help them lead safe, healthy lives. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you navigate these topics:
- Accept that this will be uncomfortable. Not only will you likely feel uncomfortable, your child will also likely experience discomfort. By showing that you’re okay feeling uncomfortable, it demonstrates to your child that it’s okay to talk through concerns, even if it’s hard.
- Have an idea of what you’d like to say. While there are no scripts for these topics, try to prepare some key points prior to the conversation. It’s okay to practice in advance, too.
- Find a good time to have the conversation. Start the conversation at a time where both you and your child are calm and have unscheduled time.
- Ask for their perspective, without judgment or interruption. See what they know about the topic, how they feel about it, and what they have questions about. Respond in a warm, accepting way that lets them know they are safe to share their thoughts.
- Make space for their feelings. Try to focus on making sure they feel heard. We may not have all of the answers, but your child can find comfort in feeling cared for and understood. A wide range of emotions about these topics is normal, and intense feelings often serve as an “alert” that something important needs to be addressed. Make sure you provide a space to help your child process feelings, whether it’s through talking about it, creating art, journaling, or play.
- Share your own emotions and how you cope with difficult feelings. Kids often learn how to manage intense feelings from their parents. To support your child, you can voice your own emotions, for example by sharing, “I feel sad that this happened.” You can also share that you are also still learning, and/or may not have answers. If you are talking with your child about tragedies, you can say, “I don’t know why this happened, and it doesn’t make sense to me either.” Another way to model healthy emotion regulation is to share with your child how you cope with stress, by taking breaks, exercising, spending time with friends, going on walks, watching funny videos, etc.
- Reassure that you care about them and want to keep them safe. Your child needs to know that you are working to keep them safe. Let them know that you are there for them and they can ask you questions and continue to talk about these topics. Name other safe adults who they can turn to as well, such as teachers, neighbors, family, coaches, etc. If they ask questions, remember to respond in a calm, nonjudgmental way to make sure they feel safe to have these discussions with you.
While some topics can be uncomfortable for kids, their response to these conversations may indicate that they need further support. It’s okay if kids don’t share everything with their parents, but they do need someone, ideally a trusted adult, to talk to in times of distress. If your child isn’t willing to engage in these conversations, or shows significant changes in their mood and behavior, it may be helpful to connect them to a therapist.
Inspired by Dr. Erin Hunter, Child Clinical Psychologist at Mary A. Rackham Institute, University of Michigan
Based on resources from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, The American Psychological Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists