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Difficult Topics: How to Talk with Your Kid

by | Sep 29, 2020 | Mental Health, Parenting Tips

Do you remember when your parents had the “Birds and the Bees” talk with you? There may have been some painfully awkward pauses, some intricate dancing around the topic, and plenty of polite metaphors that you didn’t quite catch. Now that you’re a parent yourself, you might be less than enthusiastic to relive some of these difficult topics with your own kids. Unfortunately, no matter how deeply you hope they’re not encountering pornography, suicidal ideation, or the self-esteem issues social media can contribute to, they probably are. And if they’ve managed to avoid these problems, there are a number of others that could be causing them distress

Whit Honea is the bestselling author of The Parents’ Phrase Book, a guide to social and emotional learning, parenting with empathy, and communication utilizing the nuances of language. He is also a dad of two (so yes, he’s had plenty of tough conversations). We sat down with Whit to hear his perspective on how to start those challenging chats.

What to Know Before Starting a Conversation

Whether you’re warning your kid about the prevalence of online predators or discussing the potential dangers of sharing nude images, it’s super easy to creep from We’re-Having-a-Friendly-Chat mode into I-Am-Your-Parent-and-I-Am-Lecturing-You mode.

Prepare yourself to really prioritize listening to what your child feels in addition to presenting them with information. Once you’ve shared a point, turn the conversation back to them and ask what they think about that. For example, if you’ve just explained that many kids have a friend who’s mentioned suicide, pause and ask your own child if anyone they know has mentioned the issue. This can help your kid feel some ownership over where the conversation goes, and it shows them you genuinely care about their input. You might even find it useful to prepare — either literally or mentally — some discussion questions to help the two of you really dig deep.

Finally, take a few minutes to center yourself. “If the conversation is coming from a place of anger, stress, or worry, perhaps practice those talking points out loud or bounce them off a friendly ear,” Honea suggests.

How to Initiate a Chat About Difficult Topics

You aren’t going to schedule a Zoom call with your tween or send a Google Calendar invite to your 8-year-old the way you would if you needed to discuss something important at work. So how should you kick things off? Try to keep things chill, if you can.

“Preparing our kids for the big things can be a matter of small steps,” Honea says. “We don’t need an agenda or an allotted time, nor do we even need to acknowledge that a tough conversation is in process.” In fact, the best time to have a conversation can be when something around you sparks it. Maybe your kid’s grandparent mentions the wildfires in California or they see a Pride flag on a neighbor’s house and ask what it means.

“In our home, we are constantly pausing TV shows and movies, even video games, social media offerings and songs, to discuss the subject matter at hand,” Honea explains. “Granted, this is often met with groans from the kids, but that’s fine. Discussing behaviors and topics as they relate to others we like, love or are otherwise invested in, is a great prompt for relating it to our own thoughts and values. That’s something we can continue to build on, whether it’s across the dinner table or sitting at a stoplight.”

Advice for Keeping Things Calm

If you suspect your child might be experiencing disordered eating or struggling with intense anxiety, your care for them can make it tricky to talk things through without getting upset. If they’ve been going against your family’s principles and engaging in cyberbullying or hate speech online, you may feel even more worked up. If you do feel less than calm, that’s normal. 

“Generally speaking, we’re talking about issues that hold a lot of emotional investment, and it’s only natural that it shows,” Honea explains. “That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be distracting.” Here are some concrete tips he says may help:

  • Lead with love. Make it unquestionably clear to your child that you are there for them.
  • Take a break. Not everything is going to be solved in one conversation, or even several conversations, so take a break and come up for air.
  • Let your child prepare. Giving children an opportunity to prepare some talking points, either before the conversation or during a cooling-off period, can go a long way in keeping things civil.
  • Talk through consequences. If your conversation is about an action your child shouldn’t have taken, explain that meeting consequences is a responsibility created by the situation and not a declaration of your anger (even when anger is justified).

Extend Yourself Some Grace

“The best advice that I can offer any parent, be it tough conversations or a laundry list of life lessons, is to pace yourself,” Honea says. It can be so easy to get overwhelmed by the number of things you need to teach your child, and you may sometimes feel like you have one chance to drive home an important point. But instead of having one big conversation about consent and then never mentioning it again, for example, follow up your initial conversation with additional reminders at appropriate times. That way your kid is less likely to forget what you’ve talked about and you’re less likely to feel pressured to say everything you need to say at once.

It can also be helpful to lean on your community when you’re dealing with a particularly tough topic. Ask your parent friends how their families talked about the death of a loved one. Seek a mental health professional’s advice for surfacing major issues. Read articles about encouraging your LGBTQ+ child’s mental health or supporting your kid after they’ve experienced sexual violence. Join a Facebook group for parents raising kids in a digital age. DM us on Instagram — we’re always around to chat.

No matter what difficult topics you’re preparing to discuss, remember that love can go a long way. A hug or some affirming words can make all the difference.

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