Have you had the “pleasure” of being asked one or more of these questions by your child or teen?
- How are babies made? How does the sperm get inside Mommy’s belly?
- What happens to people when they die?
- Why are some people homeless?
- Or my personal favorite: How many men did you have sex with before you met Dad?
If you haven’t yet, you will! If you have, you know how tricky it can be trying to give an appropriate answer. What is too much information? What is enough? We don’t want to upset our kids, but we do want them to understand their world—both the beautiful aspects and the not-so-beautiful, the simple as well as the complicated. This article is designed to help parents face whatever difficult questions are headed their way.
Regardless of the topic, when answering your child’s questions it is helpful to follow these seven basic guidelines:
- Try to be clear with yourself about what you are feeling. It is likely that you have your own complicated feelings about certain topics. It is therefore important that you understand what those feelings are so that you can be mindful when speaking with your child. If you are feeling too uncomfortable or uncertain about a topic your child asks you about, you can always say, “That is a good question. Let me think about how I can best answer that, and I’ll get back to you.”
- Try not to impose what you are feeling on your child. For example, when bringing up a difficult subject, choose neutral language—“I have something important to talk to you about” rather than, “I have something difficult/scary/horrible.” If your child senses you are anxious, he or she is more likely to feel that way as well.
- Try to listen to and accept whatever your child is feeling. Your child’s response might not be what you anticipate or want. Your child may seem nonplussed by something very serious, such as an illness or death of a loved one. This does not mean that your child does not care. Rather, it may signal his or her need to defend against scary or hard feelings and/or may mean that your child is not ready developmentally to understand the reality of the situation (something even us adults struggle with at times). Where your child seems overwhelmed or checked out, you might choose not to discuss certain topics with him/her at the moment. If you simply have to share certain information, keep it simple, at least to start—e.g., “Uncle Bill is very sick” rather than, “Uncle Bill developed cancer of the pancreas which metastasized.”
- Try to be sensitive to your child’s desire to talk when he or she is ready. As much as possible, wait for your child to bring up whatever issue she/he wants to discuss. Of course, this often happens at the most inopportune times—as you are saying goodnight, while you are cooking dinner, etc. Don’t be afraid to postpone the discussion until you have a chance to really think about the topic and find time to discuss it. When choosing a time to speak, remember that children often find it easier if they don’t have to look directly at you when discussing difficult issues, so having an activity to create a buffer can be helpful. Although it is often wise to wait for your child to approach you before discussing a difficult topic, sometimes it is best to introduce a topic early on. For example, with adoption, it is usually better to introduce the topic from early on and in a matter-of-fact way, using the language of adoption so that no big “secrets” or announcements need to be introduced later. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficult questions asked along the way (as there are with all kids), but the basic reality of being part of a family that may be different than others your child comes in contact with should be normalized—e.g., “There are many different types of families.”
- Try to listen for what your child is really asking. Don’t assume what is known. For example, “How are babies made?” can mean many different things. For one child, it can be about how the egg gets into Mommy’s tummy; for another, older child, it might involve curiosity about sex. To clarify, you may ask your child, “What do you think? What have you heard?” If your child seems to know nothing, you might start with the most basic, such as, “Well, to make a baby, one of the things you need is an egg.” Or, for example, if your child asks you about why some people are homeless, you probably want to find out what makes him or her ask. It might be that your child saw or heard something upsetting, in which case he or she may be asking if that could happen to his/her family and might be needing reassurance. Or the child may be grappling with a bigger question about fairness or inequality, in which case, depending on your values and political beliefs, you might start with something simple, such as, “Some people are homeless because they are not working or can’t find work.” Regardless of the topic, it is often best to give your answers and information in bite-sized pieces so that your child can decide when to stop. You do not need to give all the information at once, just what your child seems to be asking about. The good news is that even if you “overshoot” with too much information, most children have a way of filtering it out until they are ready.
- You don’t have to answer all of your child’s questions. Sometimes children want to know personal information about you when discussing certain topics—sex, money, drugs, etc. While you may feel comfortable sharing certain personal information with them, you should not reveal anything that makes you uncomfortable. If your child asks about your sex life, for example, you should probably say something to the effect of, “I hear that you are curious about Mommy, but I am not comfortable sharing that personal information. However, I can tell you about grown-ups in general.” In my opinion, children are never old enough to hear about their parents’ sex life. Rather, my experience has been that sometimes children don’t really want to hear the answer to their personal questions even if they ask.
- Try to share information at your child’s level of understanding. Some topics, such as death, can be very abstract for younger kids; even older kids and adults grapple with it. With younger kids it helps to make it concrete, such as, “Being dead means that someone can’t breathe and can’t walk.” Although heaven can be a reassuring concept for kids whose parents believe, it’s important to remember that with death and other topics, you don’t have to have all the answers, either; “I don’t know” or “No one knows for sure” are fine answers. Regardless of how you discuss death, your child will likely feel some anxiety about your mortality. Therefore, as much as possible, reassure your child that you are planning on living for a long, long time, and that he or she will always be taken care of. Be aware that when younger children learn about death, they sometimes confuse sleep with death and may need to be reassured that they are very different things.
Discussing difficult topics with your child can be overwhelming, to be sure. However, if you can follow some of the basic guidelines above, you and your child may find the experience much less anxiety-producing and much more gratifying. Contact a child counselor if you need help navigating touchy topics with your child.
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