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June 22, 2020

10 Ways to Prepare for Difficult Conversations with Children

10 Ways to Prepare for Difficult Conversations with Children

With all of the changes happening in the world and the continuous stream of posts and images shared on social media, there is no doubt our children (however young or old) are picking up on the news stories and all of the confusing information out there. Dr. Sarah Cohen, Child, Adolescent & Family Psychiatrist, provides these tips on how to have those difficult, and often very candid, conversations with your children.

    1. Set the tone for open conversations.

      Have frequent open discourse on all sorts of topics. If you are busy when your child spontaneously begins a conversation you can say, “I really want to talk to you about this, but later this evening would be a better time.” Family dinners are a great setting for general topics and a chance to model good discourse behaviors. More serious or sensitive issues may be better done one-on-one. For little kids, right before bed is usually great for ‘Special Talking Time.’ Some teenagers talk better when they are trapped and don’t have to look at you like on car rides.

    2. Meet them where they are developmentally.

      Younger children do not need to know all the details of frightening situations.  Often, oversharing can cause a micro-trauma. Instead ask these children questions to figure out their current knowledge and then go from there. Plan for frequent brief chats instead of one serious long one. If they do not answer you, best to move on and try again another time. They are usually listening, but do not know what to say or how to handle the conversation. If they seem to be going off topic, allow them and follow their thoughts as the connection may reveal itself. Use resources like books, videos and websites but do it together, do not just tell them to watch or read it.

      For older children, don’t assume that you know what they are thinking. Especially the tweens and young teens, they often act as if they know things but their facts are usually quite mixed up. Try not to be surprised or disappointed if they are acting less mature during hard conversations.

    3. Be an active listener.

      Bite your tongue when your child is talking. Place your phone out of reach and beyond earshot. Maintain eye contact and nod at times. Use positive filler words to encourage them to keep talking like, “hmm”,  “I see” and “ahh”.  Validate and label their emotions by saying things such as “It looks like you are sad, I can see why”. Reflect back on what they said to show that you understood (this can also buy you some time if you need a moment to process) such as: “I hear you saying that the mixed messages about safety are confusing.”

    4. Welcome ALL of their questions.

      Kids of all ages can have some truly unbelievable questions, misconceptions and beliefs. Try to keep your emotional responses small, even if the content of what they say is very upsetting or even pleasing. Too large reactions on your part tend to stop or divert the conversation. You want your children to come to you for knowledge corrections, rather than going to the internet or their peers. If you don’t have an answer it’s ok to say things like “I don’t know the answer to that” and “I have to think about that some more, we’ll keep talking about this another time.”

    5. Focus on the things within their control.

      Feeling a lack of control brings up fear, worries, sadness, irritability and hopelessness. Do not harp on things we cannot control such as the fact that summer camps are different this year or the history of slavery. Instead, emphasize the things we can control such as how we take care of ourselves and how we treat others. For example: we can lower the risk of viral spread by wearing our masks and washing our hands frequently.

    6. Model peace of mind and hopeful outlook.

      Anxious parents make anxious children. Angry parents raise angry children. So model the type of even temperament you hope to see in your children. It is fine to show your children true feelings when they match the situation, but they need to see that you are able to move forward as well. Try to keep very frightening conversations for adults only. Maintain a positive attitude about the future and focus on empowering young people to make changes for the better while providing lots of reassurance.

    7. Model healthy habits.

      Children and teenagers are learning from us constantly and watching closely. Let them see you exercising, meditating, eating and sleeping well. Show them how you reach out to friends and family for support. Apologize genuinely when you have done something harmful or upsetting. Give compliments to others.  Limit your alcohol and never use illicit substances in front of them.

    8. Model action and altruism.

      Volunteer to bring groceries to neighbors. Write postcards together for a political campaign. Support local Black-owned businesses. Donate extra toys, groceries and clothing. Give to charities (let them research and pick their favorites). Chat with older relatives. Seeing you do all of these things shows them how they too can make a difference in the world.

    9.  Positive parenting.

      Catch them doing good. Try to ignore the negative things. Give them a chance to make a correction in the moment by saying “Try saying that in a kinder way please.” Lavish praise on behaviors or words that you want to happen more often. Use I words such as “I feel happy seeing you be sweet to your brother”. Compliments need to be specific and genuine, and not fake. Also let them overhear you praising them to someone else, and then bring it up again later. When they know that you like and believe in them, conversations will flow more easily.

    10.  Ongoing conversations.

      Don’t expect a topic to be open and closed in one sitting, serious issues will be talked about for years. Often people of all ages need time to process and revisit a topic later, that is okay. If you think you handled something poorly during a conversation, own it. Apologize and don’t be afraid to try again. None of this is easy.

Following all of the above will help allow for open and honest chats with your children of all ages. If you have a situation where you just don’t seem to be able to have these conversations well with your child, reach out for professional help for you and/or your child to work on healthy communication skills.