How do I talk to my child about difficult things?


Questions: I was recently asked this question by a group of parents who wanted some advice and direction on how to handle these challenging moments with their children. These moments included talking to children about death, sexuality, divorce, a parent’s past and other issues that tend to cause stress and worry for parents. This is what I told them.


Answer: I first asked them to think about all the great things they are doing for their children everyday and encouraged them to be nice to themselves. We don’t often talk about all the good things we are doing and instead focus on what we perceive to be our failures. If we feel confident about our skills as a parent, we will feel more able to be authentic with them during these “difficult” conversations.


We also talked about letting go of the idea that we have to somehow be “perfect”, say just the right thing, and expect our children to talk to us without having too many feelings or being uncomfortable. If we believe that both the child and parent can have difficult feelings during the conversation (and we agreed that usually the parent is dealing with more feelings –anxiety, fear, worry), and that their relationship can tolerate and sustain itself during and after the conversation, then we can relax and be more present with our child. This will make it much easier for a child to share his thoughts with his parent.


I also told the group to keep a few thoughts in mind during the conversations. When a child asks you a question, try to slow the conversation down and explore what they are thinking first. One example of this might be when a child comes home from school very upset because another child called him a “fag” and he wants to know what that means. As a parent you will want to first understand if he is asking you to explain gay relationships, or is he trying to get you to help him feel better about what happened at school. Your response will be much different depending on what your child’s needs are at the moment. If he just wants to feel better, you can say “I think the kid wanted to feel big and powerful and that’s why he called you a bad name. I know how bad that feels and I am glad you are talking to me about it.”


It is important to show your children that it is okay to discuss all sorts of things by modeling this behaviour with and in front of them with your partner, friends, and other children. Don’t wait for the “BIG” conversations to start talking about feelings. Watch and listen to your children for signs that they have heard enough and are now tuning you out. Respect the limit they are showing you and end the conversation. This is usually a very good clue as to how much information they need at that moment. One of the most important things to support in our children these days is boundaries. Remember that if they can set them with you, they will be more able to set them with peers who may want them to do something they should not be doing.


The last and most important thing to remember is that you can say “I don’t know, I am not sure, or let me think about that” and then talk about the issue later when you feel more prepared to respond. I have never seen an adult in therapy who said that they were irrevocably damaged due to a mother who fumbled her words when talking about something hard. They really just remember how much the mother tried and cared and loved and tried again.