11 Tips for Tackling Difficult Topics with Your Kids
How to have the conversations that matter with confidence and ease
Parenthood comes with an often overwhelming amount of responsibility. Teaching new little humans about the world is not easy! At 9 and 13, my children are getting to the age where I definitely feel like I’ve put off important conversations for longer than I should have.
Some topics come more easily for me, like sexuality, gender diversity, and relationships. Conversations about race and privilege and history seem harder to me, especially because we live in a very white part of the country. They just don’t come up as naturally as some things seem to, and my kids haven’t had the opportunity to relate to these issues in their daily lives.
Talking to and teaching kids about difficult topics doesn’t have to be painful. No matter your strengths or weaknesses, there are ways to make sure your conversations with your kids are a positive experience for everyone involved.
Be matter of fact
When I talk to my kids, I don’t beat around the bush. I use simple, plain language. Things are only a big deal to children if we make them a big deal. Our children take their cues from us, our reactions and attitudes teach them what is important, what’s acceptable, and what to believe.
When we act like something is scary to talk about, our kids learn that it is something to be afraid of. One of the best things I learned in my training to be a natural childbirth instructor was to remember that I’m the expert. This applies with your kids as well — you have years of experience on them, and tons of knowledge they don’t have yet. They’re looking to you for guidance, and they have no idea if you’re nervous or worried about saying the wrong thing.
Start soon, small, and simple
In my experience, the sooner I start talking to my kids about a topic, the easier it is to transition from very minimal information to more detailed information as they grow. There’s no need to give them a college level course when a simple description or bit of knowledge will do.
One or two sentences is all you’re going to need when you first start talking about issues like marriage, body autonomy, consent, and equality.
Children are curious, but have the attention spans of… well, children. One or two sentences is all you’re going to need when you first start talking about issues like marriage, body autonomy, consent, and equality. Using the TV shows and movies you’re watching, things friends or relatives say, books you’re reading, or songs they like as jumping off points is a great way to get started.
In my article, Finding My Way as a Sex Positive Parent, I wrote “I don’t want to have “the talk” with my boys, I want sex and sexuality to be an ongoing, open conversation between us.” I see the mini conversations and seemingly offhanded comments I’ve been making since they couldn’t talk as seeds I’m planting for loving, healthy, accepting value systems.
Ask them what they think
I can’t remember where I heard this piece of advice, but it is one of the best! It can be hard to judge how much information a kid is after when they ask tough questions. The answers they’re looking for will change over time as they’re able to understand more complex concepts and carry on longer conversations. So instead of just jumping off the deep end when they ask a question, I reply with my own: well, what do you think?
This is a wonderful tool! It allows you to listen to your child and get on their level before giving them some answer you’ve repeated in your head over and over, waiting for the day they’d ask. It also lets you gauge their level of comprehension. If a child asks where babies come from, for instance, and you respond by asking what they think, you’re going to give a different answer if they tell you “a bird delivers them on your birthday” than if they say “when a mommy and daddy give special hugs it makes a baby.”
Gauging just the right amount of information a child wants or needs can be hard at first. This is especially true for younger kids, or more sensitive children. After asking them what they think about a topic, try to give them information in bite-sized chunks that are easy to process. Take a breath and watch how they are reacting to the conversation.
I tend to be an over-sharer. So many topics exist that I feel like I might like to teach my kids a full-day workshop on, but I try to resist that urge. I don’t want to offer them so much information at once that they lose all of it in the process. I try to give them one or two key ideas, and let those simmer before building on them.
Use your experiences
Don’t be afraid to be honest with your kids about things you’ve experienced in your life. It’s wonderful to share good experiences, but I think it’s imperative to also share mistakes. I am open with my kids about things like that I drank alcohol before I turned 21. Why? Because it allows me to tell them what it was like, to help them know what to expect, and to show them that I was not perfect that I don’t expect them to be perfect either.
It’s wonderful to share good experiences, but I think it’s imperative to also share mistakes.
Human beings connect most closely when we share our emotions. If I can share about a time when I was scared, or a time when I was wrong, I can create a situation where my child is more comfortable coming to me if they feel scared or like they did something wrong, because they’ll know I will understand. It’s always less scary to share something with someone when you know they’ve experienced it too.
When people are nervous, they often diffuse it with laughter. It’s no different with kids and teens. Make sure you create an environment where it’s okay if they laugh — for instance, don’t react with “this is serious!” They know it’s serious, that’s probably one of the reasons they’re trying to release tension.
Our conversations about sexuality and bodies often involve joking and laughter. Why? Because bodies are funny. Sex can be too. And the way we tiptoe around those issues can often be pretty ridiculous. Creating openness and a family culture of trust is easier to do when everyone knows their emotions and reactions are normal and okay.
Offer them resources
Some kids are visual learners, very reserved, or more introverted. Sensitive topics may feel embarrassing or very intense to kids with those kinds of personalities. One way to help them learn is to offer them resources. That way, if they’re more comfortable reading and taking the information in, you can let them do that. Once they’ve had time to process and ponder, you can check in with them about how they’re feeling.
Especially as they get older, kids are also going to want to do some learning and exploring on their own. The internet is an absolutely amazing resource, but it’s also got plenty of bad information, bias, and unsafe areas. Providing kids with a list of quality vetted resources to look to when they have questions about tough topics is important. It also provides the opportunity to educate them about how to recognize whether a source of information can be trusted.
Books, magazines, podcasts, videos, and local events and classes are other great ways to provide your child with resources beyond the ones inside your head.
I am bad at spontaneously having important discussions. I lose my ability to sound as intelligent as I am and stumble over my words. I add in nonsense and forget to talk about important points I thought of ahead of time. The problem is only compounded when there are taboos or if I know the conversation is going to be potentially embarrassing or hurt someone’s feelings.
When I’m about to have an important conversation, I always go in with a sheet of notes or bullet points.
This is why, when I’m about to have an important conversation, I always go in with a sheet of notes or bullet points. I do this for work meetings, for the discussion group I help lead, for serious conversations with friends about feelings, and for conversations with my kiddos. Know the basics you want to talk about ahead of time, think about the questions they might ask, and what answer you’ll be able to give them.
Another really great way to be prepared is to compile a list of questions and prompts you can use to engage your child in conversation. If you ask a child a closed ended question like how was school today, you’re likely to get back an answer like good or fine. If, on the other hand, you ask what was the most interesting thing that happened at school today, you’re engaging them and drawing them into a dialogue.
Here are some examples of great questions you can utilize to help your kid become an active participant in the conversation:
- What was the most surprising thing you read/heard today?
- What questions do you have about this?
- What have you heard from other people about xyz topic?
- What would you do/say if xxx?
Some topics feel too big for one person to carry, or you may not understand it well enough to feel comfortable teaching someone else. I’m pretty great at talking to my kids about sexuality and childbirth, because I’m very knowledgeable about those subjects. When it comes to thinks like poverty and what it’s like growing up a minority in America, I’ll need some help describing those experience, especially in an age appropriate manner. This is when I turn to friends and experts for recommendations on materials.
For our family, getting help also means including other parents and family members in the discussion. If I’m not having any luck engaging one of my kids, I’ve got three other parents (their stepdad, bio-dad, and stepmom) as well as a grandmother they’re extremely close to. We all have our strengths and ideas, and turning to my village for help makes parenting a little easier.
It’s okay not to know
None of us have all of the answers, especially to questions about how we go forward or change things that are very ingrained. I want to teach my kids about immigration and the current state of our country’s policy, but I also don’t have all the answers.
Letting our kids see us as fallible makes it more okay for them not to be perfect either.
It’s totally okay to admit to your kids that you don’t know how to fix things. It’s also acceptable to tell them that you don’t have the answers, but you’ll research it. You can also use that as an opportunity to research a question or issue together, and explain to them how you decide which resources to trust and where to look for the information. Letting our kids see us as fallible makes it more okay for them not to be perfect either.
No sane person would ever describe parenting as easy. But by utilizing these methods and tips, you’ll be able to make one aspect of it a little less daunting. Feeling confident and prepared going into difficult conversations will allow your kids to grow up feeling confident in their knowledge as well.
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