7 Tips for Discussing Touchy Topics with Your Child

Side profile of young woman playing with son on rugHave 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Wyatt, MA, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Gilliam

    Gilliam

    November 5th, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    Explaining things to them in a way that they can understand is so important. You don’t have to give them all of the information related to a topic, but if they bring it up then you should at least be willing to share with them what they are ready to hear. That might take a little bit of time to sort all of that out and this might be a conversation that you will want to have over several days so you can see where they are going with it, but the thing is they are going to get answers one way or another so I would much rather them get from me what I want them to know versus getting it from someone else that I am not actually agree with.

  • Gina

    Gina

    November 5th, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    I always try to take my cues from my kids.
    I know that if they bring it up then it must be something that they are curious about and I kinda think that it is my job as their mom to explain it to them in a way that is appropriate for them. If they are bringing it up then chances are they are old enough to at least talk about it on a basic level.

  • Terry B.

    Terry B.

    November 6th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    The advice that surrounds the kind of language that you frame something in is great! I have been known to do this and even though you don’t mean to, you then do impose how you feel about something onto someone else simply by the language that you use to describe the situation or the issue. I can definitely see how it would be for the best to try not to do this with children, allow them to reach their own conclusions about things once you have explained it all to them and answered any of their questions.

  • reena

    reena

    November 6th, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    I actually think that I have an even harder time talking to them about the stuff that they really don’t want to know about or talk about than I do talking with them about the things that they are curious about.
    There are some conversations (sex) where the kids are going to naturally shy away because it all sounds icky to them, but you at least have to talk to them about it a little so that they are not floored when the time comes where they really need to know all about it. You will wish that you would have gone ahead and soldiered through that conversation even if the kids were mortified!

  • TYLER

    TYLER

    November 7th, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    What do you do when the children are curious and they want to know a little too much information? What do you do then? Do you just answer what you are comfortable giving them or do you just let it all out?

  • Ruth Wyatt

    Ruth Wyatt

    November 7th, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    That’s an important question! When you say “too much information” do you mean more than you’re comfortable giving or more than you think your child can handle? If you’re not sure, you might want to try to separate those two out and make sure you’re not holding back information simply because of your own discomfort (that at least part of the reason is that you don’t feel the additional info would be helpful right then or that it might actually be harmful). If you feel uncomfortable, it’s probably better not to “say it all” unless or until you feel more comfortable or have a clear reason to do so and feel your child is ready for the answers they crave.

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