How to Talk With Your Child About Difficult Topics

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Speaking with our children about difficult topics can be delicate. Most of us can think of a time when we put off a difficult conversation, waiting for that perfect moment that never quite appears. Topics such as death of a loved one, loss of a pet, a difficult political climate, sex, drugs, and so much more.

Here are some suggestions for carefully setting the stage to create successful communication in a way that supports well-being to flourish no matter how difficult the topic.

Parent centered preparation:

  • Expose your mental models to the open air: Remember that children see a different reality than adults do. Try to use Natural Learning Relationships to help you to see through your child’s eyes and feel as your child feels the world.
  • Stay humble and be curious. Keep an open mind and heart as you approach the conversation. Be ready for surprises—children never cease to amaze.
  • Consider the stage of development of your child. Children make meaning in direct relationship to their developmental capabilities. It is a sacred responsibility to listen to how our child is making meaning. Observe your child’s sense making.

→ Children ages 0-7 need to feel/sense their world as safe—this includes knowing exactly where the boundaries are.

→ Children ages 8-12 need to feel their world is fair

→ Children ages 13-17 need open inquiry into their ideals

Listen for the wisdom of your children’s developmental moment. Honor and protect your child’s innocence. Supporting resilience in children depends upon our availability, consistent contact, and careful communication.

Child centered communication:

  • Timing: Stop all other activity and conduct the conversation with full attention and respect for the child with your full presence. In communication, watch the timing.
  • Create safety: with BodyBeing this means loving touch, with FeelingBeing it means using feeling language, with IdealBeing it means approaching the topic with respect for their ideals and a willingness to go into yours.
  • Trust: yourself and your child and your child’s feelings.
  • Listen with full attention, attitude of acceptance, and undivided attention. Some children may not have the ability to verbalize their feelings so observe them carefully for signs of stress and adjust in relationship.
  • Use careful language of the child’s developmental capacity (not adult language). Word your communication simply without assumptions built in.

→ Ages 0-7: the language of sensation (keep it simple, use sensation words)

→ Ages 8-12: the language of feelings (fairness, justice, caring, etc.)

→ Ages 13-17: the language of ideals (inquire with teenagers. Learn their interests and inquire into their ideals. It can be eye opening.)

→ Ages 18-23: the language of dialogue into meaning and spend time relationship building as you stretch into their viewpoints.

Be attentive to the words your child uses. Take care to not project your meaning onto the child’s words. Paraphrase. Repeat what you heard and give the child time to adjust or change wording to what they really may want to convey. Clarify your child’s meaning (requires open inquiry). Give your child space to change and/or correct anything after they year you paraphrase.

Keep in mind that any form of communication has influence on feelings. It is established by the little things that happen. For example, interruptions, seating arrangements (e.g., power over position), gestures, facial expressions, etc. can make a silent type of communication about how the adult is viewing the situation.

Observe your child and notice subtle non-verbal cues. There are always gestures, movements, inflections, tone of voice, and changes in facial expressions that inform you how things are going. Stay connected with them throughout the communication.