All parents are driven by an overwhelming desire to protect their children. We believe our job is to keep them safe and to grant them a carefree way of life while they are young.
At the same time, it is clear that the world is full of risks and that there is no guaranteed way to keep our children safe from harm. Talking with children about difficult topics is never easy, but there are moments when it becomes necessary.
Child development research, as well as years of experience working directly with children and families, has led me to believe that honesty and open dialogue with our children around difficult topics serves them best. Children have an innate, almost uncanny ability to perceive confusion, anxiety, or sadness in the people around them. They also quickly become aware of when there is a crisis in their family, community, or in the larger world.
When you are struggling with any kind of issue, be it personal or outside the family, it is almost guaranteed that your child will know something is amiss, even if they have no idea what the problem is. Some children will ask questions and try to get more information to reach understanding. Other children might be just as likely to withdraw, feel confused and anxious, or do their best to ignore anything they are feeling or hearing that they don’t understand.
A big mistake that so many of us make with our children is to avoid topics and keep information secret, not realizing that we can talk with them about almost anything as long as the language used and the concepts presented are appropriate for the child’s developmental stage.
Below is a great process to follow when talking with children, ages 3-10, about difficult topics, along with some sample language:
- Ask your child what they know already.—”What did you hear about the boy in your class who is sick?” Or, “Did you notice mommy was sad when she put you to bed last night?”
- Clarify and give information, but not too much.—”The boy has a very bad illness so he needs a lot of help from the doctors and nurses. But he is so sick even they may not be able to help him” Or, “I was very sad yesterday because someone decided to hurt some very good people, even though they had done nothing wrong.”
- Answer questions your child may have and offer reassurance.—”I don’t know when the boy will come back to school. He needs lots of care and medicine, so it might be a long time. But everyone is working hard to help him.” Or, “I feel very upset about what happened to those people, and it might take a little while for me to feel better. I don’t know why someone would want to hurt them but right now our family is safe and there are people working to make sure all families can be safe too.”
- Check in with your child periodically to ask if they have any new questions, or provide new information when appropriate.
Using this process allows children to grapple with difficult topics and situations with courage and a search for understanding. It reassures them that their parents are available, honest, and safe people with whom they can share their feelings. It strengthens the whole family to have opportunities to face challenges together, and to seek comfort and solutions together.
If you need some support to talk to your child about a difficult topic, please contact us at the Center for Children and Youth. Our professional staff can help!