Talking to Kids about Difficult Subjects

Have honest discussions even if you don’t have all the answers
little girl in colourful striped sweater covering her eyes
@ Can Stock Photo/AlohaHawaii

It’s our nature to be protective as parents. In fact, more than love and unconditional acceptance, hyper-vigilance is probably our default setting. Talking to them about difficult subjects is something we’re not really trained for.

Bigger kids, bigger problems

When our kids are little, it’s exhausting, but relatively straightforward: Worried that she’ll choke when she starts eating solid food? Purify leafy vegetables and spoon-feed. Petrified that he’ll crack his head open when he starts to ride a two-wheeler? Plop a helmet on him and refuse to let him ride without it. Simple solutions to simple problems, which only require us to use common sense to shield young ones from the big dangers that come their way.

As our kids get older it becomes a lot more complicated. It’s no longer appropriate for us to act as steely membranes, not allowing any kind of adversity in; most obviously, because our kids won’t let us, but also because they have to start learning how to protect themselves. And so, as difficult as it is, we have to start functioning more like finely attuned, carefully calibrated filters catching all of the worst grit and grime, while helping them to manage the character-building stuff that passes through.

This is no easy task, particularly now, in the information age when we have less control over when our kids are exposed to frightening and provocative subject matter. It’s no wonder that so many of the parents I work with today feel completely helpless when it comes to talking to their kids about the tough issues facing them.

But there are ways to both protect and inform our kids, which don’t involve banning all technological devices! Again, think of yourself as a filter.

How to help kids deal with hard topics

Keep current 

This means staying one step ahead of your child when it comes to knowing what’s happening in his world. Sometimes this refers to the catty exchanges going on between friends on the playground, and sometimes this refers to the nuclear standoffs going on between countries in the “real world.” Like oxygen in the atmosphere, media is all around them, everywhere they go, so don’t be surprised if your seven-year-old comes home from a play-date asking about the latest bombing in a country you didn’t even know she knew how to pronounce. Keeping abreast of the latest happenings in your child’s life not only gives you control over when and how to discuss a difficult topic, but also whether or not to bring up the difficult topic in the first place. In general, a good rule of thumb is not to discuss disturbing subject matter with your child unless you are fairly certain that he is going to find out about it anyway, in which case it can be helpful to initiate a conversation ahead of time.

Be prepared to answer difficult questions

Now, this doesn’t mean having the answers to all of life’s problems figured out. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily mean having any answers at all! What it does mean is that we don’t blanche or buckle in the face of our kids’ inquiries, but rather remain an open and steady resource for them to draw upon, even when (in fact, especially when) their questions don’t have any satisfying solutions or explanations. While we might not have all of the information that our children are seeking, our attentive and non-judgmental presence is often enough to provide them with the comfort and reassurance they are actually looking for.

Respect your child's level of maturity

This means not introducing your child to information that he’s not yet ready to handle, even if his peers are practically PhDs in the subject matter. All children are different and if we don’t respect their differing levels in maturity we run the risk of blindsiding them with material they are not yet emotionally equipped to handle. Relax, they will get there, and in the meantime you can start gathering informative resources for your child to refer to once he is ready to have that uncomfortable conversation (you know the one) with you. For very young children, I recommend using picture books to talk about challenging issues. For an older child, a YouTube clip or website you have vetted ahead of time could provide a useful jumping off point for a difficult discussion.

Respect your child’s right to know

On the other side of the spectrum of parents wanting to introduce provocative information way too early, are parents who wait too long to bring up the hard-to-talk-about stuff. When parents avoid, sugar-coat or otherwise mislead their kids about the difficult realities they face, they not only run the risk of betraying their children’s trust and confidence, but also encouraging them to seek out outside, less reliable sources of information. That being said, exposing any child, no matter how old and emotionally mature she is to the gory details of a disturbing event serves no useful purpose. Remember kids have incredible imaginations that are apt to run wild with even the most basic information. Discussing graphic material with your child may help to “satisfy” his curiosity, but it also sets him up to have nightmares, anxiety, and other issues. For this reason it is best to keep conversations honest, while also being appropriately vague.

Help them take action 

With all the difficult issues kids are exposed to today, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed. Knowing when to protect our kids from certain harsh realities and when to help them to become more informed is a powerful way to regulate the challenges they face. However, sometimes controlling the quantity and quality of information that our kids receive isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a more proactive approach and take action. In these circumstances, helping your child to get involved, problem-solve and even take up a cause can be the best way to ensure that in the face of adversity, your child not only feels prepared, but also feels empowered.