How to Discuss Difficult Topics with Young Children

Scary… is the first feeling that may come to mind when you’re young child casually asks that difficult question that you not sure how to respond to appropriately.   “Where do babies come from?” or “Why did grandma and grandpa get divorced?” are some of those uncomfortable but completely normal questions that kids ask.

Not only are these topics difficult to answer by nature, but they often happen at the most inopportune moments, such as, at the holiday table, in a large group or at a school event.  Fortunately, we do have some great tips to make your job as a parent a little easier and more comfortable for everyone.  It doesn’t have to be that intimidating.

Follow these simple steps…

  1. When Possible…Plan aheadBe prepared for the difficult questions that all children will ultimately ask their parents.  A biggie is,” Where do babies come from?”  The best way to answer this question is to be brief, clear and honest. You may want to say (depending on the age of the child) that babies grow in the bellies of their Moms and leave it at that. Then wait for the child to be ready to continue the conversation.
  1. Remember to keep your answers brief.Try to be matter of fact with your attitude and keep the language simple and always ensure that it is age appropriate for them.  You don’t have to give too many details. 
  1. Ask your child what they already know. – During your conversation, ask your child what they know about the topic?  It may be that they saw a news segment that night that was all about people dying of cancer.  So, in their minds they came to the conclusion that everyone who has cancer is going to die.  Knowing what your child is concerned about makes it easier for you to be reassuring as a parent.  The best way to start your conversation is by using open ended questions.  “What did you see or hear on the news?”
  1. Be aware of your own emotions and feelings.– Keep your own emotions in check when discussing a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Allow children to freely express their fears without judgment.  Also, really take the time to listen to your child’s questions no matter how silly they may seem to you.  Remember that your child is posing these concerns because they are important to them. A child may easily pick up on an adult’s fear or concern through their body language or tone of voice. Showing your anger or concern can make your child regret bringing up their questions in the first place. So again be aware of your own emotional baggage.
  1. Allow time for questions.Don’t be afraid to ask your child if they have any more questions and allow them the time to respond.  They may need time to absorb your answers and may have more questions the next day or week.  It may even be a good idea to revisit the conversation a few days later.  Always keep the lines of communication open.
  1. Always be honest and reassuring.Most importantly parents always want to remember to be honest and reassuring to kids when addressing these difficult sometimes uncomfortable conversations.  It’s even ok to say to a child that you don’t know the answer to a question.  But make sure that you still are able to reassure them that everything will be ok.

Some Common topics that frequently arise with small children…

When Talking about Death – Keep in mind the previous steps when you discuss this topic with your child.  Remember that you want to be honest with your child, but at the same time keep the conversation at an age appropriate level.  So for a younger child you might say that all living things eventually die to make way for new life.  It’s certainly ok to let them know that they may be sad or miss their friend or family member. Take that time to reassure them that it will be ok.  Try your best to answer all the questions your child may have at the time.  Then give them the time they need to absorb the information.  Make an effort not to overdo it with the details.

Be prepared when you have a death in your family for the question, “Where does Papa go when he dies?”  The answer to this question depends on your family’s belief system.  One parent may say that Papa is in heaven with God and another may say that they are not really sure?  Whatever the answer maybe we need to remember, as parents that we want to reassure our children that we are there for them and it will be ok.

Divorce – Again keep in mind the recommended steps that ensure your comfort with dealing with difficult conversations with children.  Don’t kid yourself by thinking that your child doesn’t know that something is different in the household.  Even a young child can pick up on a parent’s mood, body language or even just a change in the family’s schedule.  Be honest when breaking the Divorce news to your children.  Don’t lie and say Daddy is going on a business trip and won’t be back for awhile.  Children are smarter than you think and can see right through that story.  Let your child know that one parent is moving out because you, as adults, cannot live together anymore.  However, let them know that it has nothing to do with anything they did or said nor does it affect the love that both parents have for their children and one another. Parents should both be present when breaking the news to a child so they both can participate in answering questions and providing the needed reassurance to their child. 

The key to affectively dealing with difficult conversations is to hit the topic head on, be honest, keep it age appropriate and most importantly reassure your child that everything is going to be ok! 

Kelli Didomenico brings over 20 years of experience to her role at The Children's Workshop as Director of Parent and Community Relations.  She engages and welcomes families into the TCW family and to ensure that their experience with us is always top notch. Kelli earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from Rhode Island College.  She was the Director and Owner of her own School Age Program and a Program Manager for Therapeutic child care before rejoining the TCW team in 2010.  She is also a very active member of the communities we serve.

Kelli is a regular star on our Modern Parent Segment on The Rhode Show.  Click here to see her episode on Discussing Difficult Topics.