Every parent probably has one (or more) topics that they dread having to talk to their kids about. Are you wondering how (or if) to begin talking to your child about any of these topics:
- Sexual Abuse?
- Differences and Discrimination?
- When Bad Things Happen to Good People?
You may feel like your child is too young, or it’s too early to have those conversations. But, it’s easy to put them off till it’s too late.
Your child will be exposed to all these things, and more. Whether that exposure comes from things happening on their own lives (like the death of a pet), or in the lives of their friends and classmates (a divorce), or in their community (a fire), or from over-hearing the news or peering over your shoulder as you read Facebook, or from stumbling upon really startling videos on the internet. They will learn about them all, often younger than you might think.
And, with their limited life experience, when they do run across challenging concepts, they can be overwhelmed, or frightened, or confused. They can also get information that is incorrect, counter to your values, or potentially harmful.
It is far better for you to talk to your kids about these things in advance, in developmentally appropriate ways, a little bit at a time.
You are your child’s first, and most important, teacher.
You are in a unique position for teaching them, because:
You have opportunities: You are the most likely to be with them in those early “teachable” moments when questions and issues present themselves. By timing it right, you can make sure the information is received. This is better than hoping that on the one day they talk about the topic at school your kid is open to hearing about it, and not distracted by other things.
You know your child: their learning style and their current knowledge. This allows you to perfectly tailor the information you give them, so it makes sense in the current context of their lives, and is tied to their life experiences.
You shape their values: As you teach information about these topics, your words and your actions also communicate your family’s values. You might explain that other people might think differently, but this is what your family values and why.
You can be a lifelong resource: If they know you’re open to talking about difficult topics, they also know you’re available to help them any time they’re facing challenges related to them.
What You Might Worry About
- Not knowing the right words, getting embarrassed, stumbling along awkwardly.
- What you can do: Do the best you can. Acknowledge that it’s awkward and you’re trying to get it right because this is an important topic. (It can also help to rehearse in advance. Can you get to a point where you are as comfortable saying vagina as you are saying shoulder? Could you be as comfortable talking about “when grandma died” as you are talking about “when you were born”?)
- Not knowing the right answers.
- Answer the best you can, tell them you’ll learn more, and follow up on that promise.
- Giving too much or too little information.
- Start by asking your child what they already know. Use their answers to help you set the right level. Listen to their questions or watch non-verbal cues to signal you when they’ve had enough. When they’re ready to move on to another topic, let them. You’ll have plenty of other times in their life you can come back to this.
- Talking about hard topics might make your child sad or scared.
- Yes, it might. But talking openly and honestly about sad and scary things in advance can help your child work through some of those feelings and build some skills in advance. For example, the death of a pet or loved one will make a child sad… having talked before that time about death, and having talked about grief in advance may make it seem more manageable.
- It’s actually more scary if we refuse to talk about it. The child thinks “if this is too scary for Mom or Dad, then it must be really awful!”
- (Now… we will talk about these topics gently – don’t talk about them in ways that exacerbate their sadness or build their fears.)
- They’ll “do it” because we talked about it.
- Research actually shows that children are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if they are able to talk to a trusted adult. And if they do engage in behaviors, such as sex or underage drinking, they’re more likely to know about, and use, skills to keep them as safe as possible in that context, such as birth control and STI prevention and knowing who to call so they don’t ride in a car with a friend who’s been drinking.
When to Talk About Things
Don’t try to do any of these topics all in one big conversation… don’t feel like you need to have “The Talk.” Look for all the little opportunities in everyday life.
For preschool to early elementary children, these are itty-bitty bite-sized conversations. Often just a sentence or two. Here are a few examples:
You talk to your child about making healthy decisions when telling them they need to choose healthy foods or brush their teeth. That could be an entry point for talking about how some people make decisions that are bad for their body (e.g. smoking).
When giving medications for an illness, you have an easy opportunity to talk about only using medications that are prescribed for you, and never taking anything you find or another kid gives to you.
When you want to order a glass of wine at dinner, and you ask your partner if they can be responsible for driving home, you’re modeling responsible alcohol use. You also talk to your child about how alcohol is something that only grown-ups can drink.
When getting changed in the locker room after swimming, you can discuss private parts and how we generally keep them covered and other people shouldn’t touch them or take pictures of them.
When you remind your child to tuck the tablet in a bag rather than leaving it out on the car seat where anyone can see it, it’s a place to gently introduce crime and steps we take toward prevention.
When you ask if it’s OK to hug them, or teach them to ask their friends if it’s OK to give them a hug, you’re modeling consent and respect for boundaries.
Nature presents us with all sorts of opportunities. Once on the walk to kindergarten, my son and I saw a dead squirrel. It didn’t appear injured, so it wasn’t gory… it just looked asleep. This led to discussions about death versus sleep versus life and all sorts of thoughts related to that.
When your child overhears news about gun violence, or a hurricane or an earthquake, talk about it. (When talking about scary things, I don’t talk a lot about the really scary parts. I instead focus on “how likely is it that this scary thing would happen to you? What can we do to prevent it? If it happened, what would we do? Who will help to protect you?” You want to help them not feel totally powerless.)
When you’re reading a book to your child, or watching a movie with them, and difficult issues come up, take time to talk it over and debrief what you saw: what happened? How did the character feel? What did they do? What could you do in that situation? (I also discuss this where I address Emotional Literacy.)
When your child shouts out something like “Look, that lady only has one leg“, talk about differences. Jacob Tobia notes “Beneath every observation of difference is an implied question about whether or not that difference is acceptable…. Try answering the question they’re really asking… you could say ‘Yes, Johnny, sometimes boys do wear lipstick and that’s perfectly okay.'”
When your child says “one of the kids at school says…..”, that’s a great time to address it. If their peers are talking about it, you should be too! Be sure to correct any misconceptions they might have picked up.
When your child tells you about something problematic that they have done, try to listen to the whole story before you freak out. You want your child to feel safe talking to you about problems. (Now, I’m not saying you wouldn’t impose consequences for bad behavior, but try to first calmly listen to them and also to talk out the reasons for your response.)
Respond to Questions
Often, your child creates a teaching opportunity by asking you a question. It’s important to figure out why they’re asking: Do they want information? Are they asking your permission to do something? Are they testing you to see if you’re approachable and trustworthy? Are they asking for help? Are they anxious about something?
I really appreciate this checklist from Advocates for Youth about responding to a child’s questions:
- “Remember that if someone is old enough to ask, she/he is old enough to hear the correct answer and to learn the correct word(s).
- Be sure you understand what a young child is asking. Check back. For example, you might say, ‘I’m not certain that I understand exactly what you are asking. Are you asking if it’s okay to do this or why people do this?’ What you don’t want is to launch into a long explanation that doesn’t answer the child’s question.
- Answer the question when it is asked. It is usually better to risk embarrassing a few adults (at the supermarket, for example) than to embarrass your child or to waste a teachable moment. Besides, your child would usually prefer it if you answer right then and softly. If you cannot answer at the time, assure the child that you are glad he/she asked and set a time when you will answer fully. ‘I’m glad you asked that. Let’s talk about it on the way home.’
- Answer slightly above the level you think your child will understand, both because you may be underestimating him/her and because it will create an opening for future questions. But, don’t forget that you are talking with a young child. …
- Remember that, even with young children, you must set limits. You can refuse to answer personal questions. …Also, make sure your child understands the difference between values and standards relating to his/her question. For example, if a child asks whether it is bad to masturbate, you could say, ‘Masturbation is not bad; however, we never masturbate in public. It is a private behavior.’ [values versus standards] You should also warn your child that other adults may have different values about this subject…”
Being an Askable Parent
Within sexuality education, there’s the concept of being “an askable parent” and I think these ideas apply to all the difficult topics. It’s all about creating an environment where your child knows that they can come to you with questions, rather than turning to their peers or the internet.
Here are the qualities of an askable parent:
- Shows respect for the child
- Approachable. Listens to the child.
- Provides factual information, and is willing to look for information if they don’t already know it.
- Doesn’t laugh at the child, even if questions seem cute or seem stupid.
- Doesn’t need to be perfect – can admit to their own past mistakes when they didn’t know better.
- Can be embarrassed or awkward about questions the child has asked – acknowledges their discomfort, then does the best they can to answer the question
- Respects confidentiality. Does not broadcast child’s questions on social media.
- Having a sense of humor helps.
During their life, your child will be making many difficult decisions. You want to have armed them with information and taught them decision making skills, but you also want them to know that you’re available as a resource to them! One message you may wish to give: Whatever decisions they make, or whatever mistakes they make, you will always love them. (Being a “high expectations / highly responsive” mom in my parenting style, I have told my children that “I might be disappointed in some choices you might make if I think you could have done better, but I will still love you.”)
The ultimate goal is for your child to respond to life challenges using the values that you have instilled in them to come to healthy and responsible decisions, even if you’re not by their side to guide them.
Here are several resources, some of which I wrote, and some that I found online, to help get you started with each of these difficult topics.
- Talking about Scary Topics (e.g. violence, natural disasters, accidents, etc.) https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/05/29/talk-to-child-about-scary-things/
- Sex: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/04/18/sexuality/
- Death: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/06/05/talking-with-children-about-death/
- Sexual Abuse / Stranger Danger: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/02/13/tricky-people/
- Drugs & Alcohol: www.parents.com/kids/problems/drug-abuse/talking-to-your-child-about-drugs/ and https://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Dispatch.aspx?q1=parenting&q2=healthy-communication-and-relationships&q3=talk-to-your-kids-about-tobacco-alcohol-and-drugs
- Gun Violence. This is a great article with links to LOTS more excellent resources: www.colorincolorado.org/article/15-tips-talking-children-about-school-violence
- Scary Things in the News: www.childrennow.org/parenting-resources/seen-tv/
- Weapon Play: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/02/23/gun-play-2/
- War: www.parentingpress.com/brochure/war.pdf
- Earthquakes: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/01/23/earthquake-preparedness/
- Natural Disasters: www.girlscouts.org/en/raising-girls/happy-and-healthy/happy/kids-and-natural-disasters-hurricane-earthquake.html
- Differences and Discrimination (Racism, Ableism, and more): https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/05/05/teaching-diversity/
- Gender Identity: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/05/02/gender-identity/
Note: The resources I have written, or chosen, reflect my personal values. If you find that they don’t align with your values, please don’t choose just not to talk to your child about that topic. Instead, seek out other resources. You might ask your family, friends, child’s teachers, or church leaders to help point you to other options.
The resources I have written, or chosen, also reflect my life experience, and the community in which I live with my children and my students. I live in a privileged situation as a white, educated, straight parent in a low crime, high income, politically liberal community. Although I try to remain aware of other circumstances, I know that my perceptions of what is reasonable and appropriate to do is influenced by that situation. You may find that what you need to do with your child is very different than what I recommend. You are always the best judge of what is appropriate for your child.