HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT DIFFICULT TOPICS
We live in very strange times. As adults, our brains are not wired to process the world in which we currently live. It’s easy to forget what life was like before the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media. But this summer I remembered. Social media and most news were gone from my life for 7 weeks. The first days were rough because being on my phone was such a habit, but then I just forgot. I found I could concentrate better, had more ideas, and communicated more with my family. I was also significantly less stressed.
Now imagine being a child in this world.
Their world is an incredibly stressful and unpredictable place filled with terrorism, scary weather patterns, and political strife. At the same time, kids are now more depressed and anxious than at any other time in history. Sadly, suicide is also on the rise. Some longitudinal research suggests kids today have levels of anxiety comparable to children hospitalized for anxiety in 1957. In another 2010 study from Clinical Psychology Review, the significant increase in depression is graphically documented.
In addition to all this stress and depression, social media tells kids they should be happy, popular, and semi-famous either through YouTube or Instagram. And the gap between the message of social media, “Be Happy!” and the message from the news, “Be Scared!” is widening.
And this is why parenting right now is so important. And by parenting, I mean talking about difficult topics. Talking with a trusted adult actually reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.
So Where Do You Start?
What’s a difficult topic? I include sex, drugs, terrorism, suicide, kidnappings, divorce, and death just to name a few. And while this is a crazy variety of subjects, the underlying theme is these are the topics that usually make parents squirm. But wouldn’t you rather your kids discuss such things with you rather than someone else?
Here are 5 guidelines I often suggest for parents to consider.
Difficult topics are ongoing conversations. It’s not just one talk. And before diving in, check your relationship first. While you may want to talk with them, they may not be willing to listen to you, especially teens. Entering into these conversations requires trust and openness.
Before you talk, think through the emotional and developmental maturity of your child. Some 9-year-olds can handle topics for which some 12-year-olds are not prepared. All kids are different. And, kids are detectives. All their answers can be found online. Online information may be misleading, developmentally inappropriate, or incompatible with your family’s values. It’s better for them to learn from you.
With many topics, you as a parent will feel uncomfortable as well. Acknowledge your emotions to yourself and to your child. Recognize they likely are feeling similar and it is comforting for them to know you understand and are experiencing similar emotions.
Before a conversation, practice by yourself or talk it through with a friend or partner. You never know what emotions may well up in you, especially around loss, sickness, or family strife. It’s ok for you to show your emotions, but don’t overwhelm your child or put them in a position of trying to comfort you.
Reassure them. Let them know they are loved and protected. Show them leadership, and be their safe space. These conversations don’t need to be long and preferably should be brief. Some kids may take time to process the information. Be sure to ask them specifically if they have questions. Reassure them that they can come to you at any time for more information. It never hurts to check in with them later.
Making a habit of being able to talk about difficult topics makes you a better parent, relieves guilt, and builds confidence in your child. Also, demonstrating your willingness to have these conversations also conveys love and demonstrates confidence in your child’s ability to engage with you. And finally, for the long-term, your child is seeing you model a level of parenting that they too will hopefully model with your grandchildren.