How to Talk to Kids About Difficult Topics

family.jpgToday, Jane (also of see jane blog) shares 10 tips for talking to kids about difficult topics:

This past fall I had to tell my kids that I had thyroid cancer. We've had grandparents pass in the past few years. Sad events have taken place in the U.S. In short, I have had many opportunities to figure out how to talk to my kids about difficult topics. Today, I wanted to share 10 recommendations for having these conversations with your kids:

1. Be honest. Honesty is important, even if it makes conversations more difficult to have (usually it's more difficult for the grownups than the kids). Being honest will open up trust; your kids will know they can come to you with any question. It's OK to say that you are scared about something, or don't know the answer. Kids will have a lot of questions; just do your best to answer honestly (a calm, matter of fact manner helps) and at an age-appropriate level.

2. Adjust your conversations depending on age. I chose to speak to each of my kids about my diagnosis separately since they vary in ages: 6, 9, 13, and almost 15. For younger kids, certain details not only may be unnecessary, but may be too upsetting. Boil the conversation down to the simplest terms.

3. And be prepared for different responses. I also found that responses differed and I needed to be open to those differences. For example, I was surprised to find that my teenage daughter had the hardest time with the information. Later I found out that she visited her school counselor to talk about it more. At first, I was devastated that she didn't come to me, but then I realized that it was good that she has other adults in her life that she feels comfortable sharing her feelings with. In contrast, my 6-year-old daughter was worried about me having a scar on my neck from surgery; she didn't want anyone to see it. It didn't seem a big deal to me, but being aware of her sensitivities, I wore a scarf and kept it covered until the wound healed.

4. Let your child talk. When hard topics arise, it's tempting (or sometimes feels easier) to fill the conversational space. But try giving your child the space to talk; ask a direct, open-ended question and let them share their feelings, e.g., "Have you heard that Aunt Miriam is sick?" or "Have you heard about the big fire at the hotel in Pakistan?" Your next question might be, "What did you hear about it?"

5. Be aware of time and place. Although it's good to respond to questions when they arise, I recommend postponing a tough conversation until you're in a quiet space. For example, if your child brings up a difficult topic while you're in the supermarket, it's perfectly fine to tell him/her that it would be better to talk once you get home.

6. Don't avoid the topic. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid certain topics. But children are often exposed to more than we are aware, and a child's fears can grow out of proportion if there is no opportunity to address them. If your child asks you directly about a topic and you avoid it, their fears may become amplified. Also, you want them to hear the facts from YOU, not on the playground from friends.

7. Be reassuring. Feeling safe and secure is very important to children, especially young ones. Even if you're afraid or sad, make sure they know you will do everything you can to keep them safe. No matter what happens, you'll be there for them. It can also help to remind your kids of times in the past when they were brave in the face of a scary situation and got through something challenging.

8. Don't force it. On the flip side, you may be ready for a tough conversation and your child may not. Don't force your child to have a conversation if they don't seem ready. Open the door, but don't push.

9. Let your kids express themselves in the way that feels best to them. Hospital visits (and funerals) can be too intense for some kids. Don't coerce a child into being involved or make him or her feel guilty if he or she chooses not to visit, or if the contact is brief. If your child doesn't want to visit, suggest a phone call or a handmade card instead...whatever mode feels right for them.

10. Engage help if necessary. As I found with my teenage daughter, sometimes outside parties can provide immense help. Be on the lookout for signs that your kids need extra support, and use your community resources as much as necessary.

I hope these tips are helpful to you. If you have others to share, feel free to do so in the comments below.

Image credit: