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How to Talk to Your Kids About…Difficult Subjects

As parents, we will have numerous opportunities to talk to our children about tough subjects. Topics like death, drugs, bullying and sex…it can be intimidating to know how to engage in these types of conversations.

To make it even more challenging – talking to your children about drugs is a very different conversation than talking to your kids about death. That’s why we created the “How to talk to your kids” series – to give you the advice and tools you need as a parent to handle each subject – no matter how tricky (or uncomfortable) it gets.

On a positive note, although each situation will be different, there are some key points to remember that we can use with our children to help any and all tough conversations run more smoothly.
  • Start the Conversation-Early: Naturally, we want to put off the “tough topics” until we have to. But instead of waiting for these tough topics to find you and your family, start early and talk to your children first. For example, instead of waiting for your child to tell you they have been approached by a stranger, reference the “How to talk to your kids about strangers” post and prepare them first, so they know what to say and how to handle the situation long before it happens.
  • Create an open environment: Provide opportunities for your children to talk about how they feel, what they are worried about, what they are hearing and seeing at school and through the media. We do this by not judging, not over-scheduling our children (so we have time to be with them), and being available at the crossroads to listen. Spend one-on-one time together and build trust.
  • Listen to your child: Determine when your children like to talk. Maybe it is right after school, or at night before bed. Be available during those times. Then let go of your own agenda and really hear your child. Don’t just listen so you can talk. Get to their level, look them in the eyes, and talk less than they do. Don’t ever shut them down and remember that you don’t have to comment on everything.
  • Be honest: Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers to their questions. Be honest and tell the truth. We see this a lot with the topic of death. Parents don’t know how to talk to their children, so they might say “grandma is just sleeping.” This just causes more stress and confusion and now you have to answer more hard questions, like “when is grandma going to wake up?” (Keep reading the “How to talk to your kids” series to learn more tips on how to handle specific conversations such as death, sex, drugs, and even what to do when mommy is sick).
  • Be patient: Tough conversations take time. Don’t worry about saying it all the first time you converse. Listen more than you talk, and be patient and hear the entire conversation.
  • Stay on their level: Answer your children’s questions on a level that they can understand. Simple words and explanations work best. Keep the facts appropriate for their age and don’t include more facts than necessary.
  • Use everyday opportunities to talk: Did you just watch a movie where a child was bullied? Use it as a lead-in, to a conversation about bullying. Keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunities that present themselves everyday. They can be natural “openers” for the tough topics. Dr Michele Borba, recognized expert in parenting, bullying, youth violence, and character development, offers some wonderful advice to parents on how they can recognize bullying at any age. As she says “the more we know about bullying, the better we will be able to parent our children”
  • Revisit: Talking about the “tough stuff” once is not enough. Revisit the topics and make yourself available when they have questions they want to revisit.

As parents, if we want to successfully talk to our kids about tough topics, we have to first develop a trusting and comfortable relationship with them. The above 8 suggestions can help us set the stage to better prepare them, and you, for the tough conversations and situations to come.

What I Learned Arguing With an 8-Year-Old

My step-son and I spent some time alone a couple of weeks ago. My grandmother-in-law passed away and my husband and I went to help his mother. When we got up there, my husband drove his mom on some errands and I was left to play with my newly 8 years-old step-son.

We had a wonderful time. He is currently obsessed with the lego show Ninjago and we played with legos, making up storylines and dancing to the pop punk theme songs of the show. This was my first time spending a significant amount of time alone with him and it was interesting. I learned some things about 8 year-olds, for instance, “poop” is the new word that he finds hilarious and children have their own logic.

We had transitioned from playing with legos to playing outside and were each playing with swords and some other toys. I was playing with a flower and he wanted it, so, he looked at me and said “Give me that.” Now, he and I do not have a particularly formal relationship. We play and talk about this and that and are generally very relaxed with each other. However, this demand had a very specific tone, parents, I’m sure you know the tone I’m talking about. It’s the one that says “I don’t know my boundaries with you and I’m gonna see if I can tell you what to do.”

This was new to me, I just recently reached a point in my life where I handle conflict well with adults, now I was being tested by an 8 year-old. Since we were still playing, I kept the mood light. I have no interest in being an authoritarian with him and I prefer to talk to him like he’s just a smaller human instead of a less intelligent one, so my response was quite simply to pause and say “no.” The result of this wasn’t a temper tantrum (though he did sulk briefly) but a back and forth conversation lasting about half an hour. We argued for a bit, him trying to grab it from me, me holding it over my head, neither of us actually angry, more just testing the relationship we have.

I told him early on that all he had to do to get the toy from me was say please. This caused a burst of annoyance and the logic eventually came out that “big boys don’t have to say please.” This was an interesting turn to me, so we talked about it. “Your dad says please,” I responded. He nodded and said “daddy’s an adult.” Okay, I thought, so “big boys” and “adults” are not the same. He elaborated further, “only little kids say please.”

This is where I learned that children will make up their own rationalizations for how the world works in order to get what they want. There is something very important about this. Adults do this too. In relationships, in parenting, in politics, in religion, we all choose a worldview that pleases us and takes us in what we consider to be the “right” direction.

Our conversation continued where I explained that people didn’t respond very well when they had things demanded of them. That it made them feel like they don’t have a choice, that they have to do what you want. He thought about this and looked at me a little shyly and asked if he could have the toy “please.” I grinned at him and tossed him the toy. We kept playing until my husband got home at which point my step-son immediately ran up to him and said “daddy, Clara and I got into a fight.” My husband smiled and his mother asked “who won?” And winked knowingly at me.

And that was that. There were no tears, no yelling, I didn’t focus on the “right” or “wrong” of the situation. I focused on the expression itself. I choose to be a guide and a sounding board, I choose to be less concerned with exerting my will over him and more concerned with how his world view is developing.

Many children are highly intelligent and are more than capable of having well thought out conversations about their thoughts, emotions, and choices.

By being curious and taking the time to listen to his explanation and talk things through I was able to create an understanding between our perspectives.

Shouldn’t that be the point of all communication?

I’d love to hear stories from you guys. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever “argued” with your little one about? What conclusions did you reach?

How to Get Kids to Talk About Their Feelings

If you’re worried about a child, encouraging them to talk can be very helpful, whether you’re a parent, grandparent, friend or teacher.

If you think a child you know has a problem, it can be hard to know how to start talking to them about it.

When there are problems at home, such as parents fighting, divorce or a death in the family, children can become withdrawn and upset.

Being able to talk to someone other than a parent is sometimes very helpful for children. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers or even a counsellor can all offer support.

Look for clues in their play

Children express themselves through play as well as words. You can learn a lot about how they’re feeling by simply spending time with them and watching them play.

Stressed and upset children often play fighting games with their toys. Comment on this by saying, “There are a lot of fights going on” or “It seems pretty frightening”. This can help to get them talking about what’s bothering them.

Even if you don’t start a conversation, you’ll be making the child feel more comfortable with you, paving the way for them to open up to you about their problems.

If you can get them talking, gently ask what’s wrong. But if the child doesn’t want to open up, let the subject go, then repeat the process at another time until they’re ready to tell you what’s bothering them.

If a child is too frightened to talk

If you’re worried that a child you know might be being abused at home, it can help to ask a question like, “Is mummy getting very cross with you? You can tell me about it if you want to”.

A child might not understand that they’re being abused. They may simply see it as a parent being angry or annoyed with them.

Children who are being sexually abused often don’t talk about it because they think it’s their fault or they have been convinced by their abuser that it is normal or a “special secret”.

Children will often ask if you’re going to tell anyone about what they’ve told you. Never promise not to tell, but explain that you’ll only tell other people who want to help.

If you suspect abuse, encourage them to call ChildLine** in the UK (0800 1111) or ring the NSPCC** yourself (0808 800 5000) in the U.K. and get advice about how to report it.

If a child is aggressive or misbehaving

If a child is fighting or being aggressive, they’re doing it for a good reason, and talking may help you discover the reason.

Start by telling the child that their bad behaviour is unacceptable and why – for example, because it will harm other people or get them into trouble. Then offer them the chance to talk about why they’re angry.

This might not work instantly because an angry child might not listen to you straight away. Don’t give up. Children are aware when they’re behaving badly, and it’s important to find out the reasons why.

If your child is grieving

Young children don’t always understand what death means. It helps to explain it by saying, “Nana’s died. She’s not going to be with us any more”.

Watch children carefully if someone close to them has died. If they seem tearful or withdrawn, encourage them to open up about how they’re feeling by talking about the person who’s died.

You could say something like, “It’s very sad that Nana has died” or “I feel sad that Nana has died, and sometimes it’s hard to understand why people die”.

If you’re still worried about your child

If you are still concerned about your child after talking to them, see your GP (*physician) for further advice.

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

** Resources outside the U.K.:

NHS Choices logo


Getting Questions About Sex? How to Talk to Your Child

If your child is asking questions about sex, they’re ready for truthful answers. It’s never too early to start talking about it – find out how to go about it.

Young children are naturally curious about their bodies and other people. By answering any questions they ask, you can help them understand their bodies, their feelings and other people’s feelings. This is a good basis for open and honest communication about sex and relationships, growing up and going through puberty.

Talking to children about sex won’t make them go out and do it. Evidence shows that children whose parents talk about sex openly start having sex at a later stage and are more likely to use contraception.

How Much Should I Tell My Child About Sex?

It depends on your child. If they seem happy with your answer and don’t ask a follow-up question, you’ve probably given them enough information. If they ask another question, you can tell them more.

You don’t have to go into detail. A short, simple answer might be enough. For example, if your three-year-old asks why she hasn’t got a penis like her brother, you could tell her that boys have penises on the outside and girls have vaginas on the inside. This could be enough to satisfy her curiosity.

Work out exactly what your child wants to know. For example, if they ask a question, such as “Where do babies come from?”, identify what they’re asking. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.

You could answer by saying: “Babies grow in a woman’s tummy, and when they’re ready they come out into the world”. This might be enough.

If not, your child’s follow-up question could be, “How does the baby get in there?” You could answer, “A man puts a seed in there”. Or your child may ask, “How does the baby get out?” You could answer, “It comes out through a special passage in the woman’s body called a vagina”.

What do Children Need to Know About Sex?

They need to know that it’s OK to talk about sex and relationships, and that you’re happy to talk about it. They’ll learn this through your tone and manner when you talk about sex, so try to treat sex as a normal, everyday subject.

Beyond sex, your child needs to know the following main topics:

Your child needs to know about puberty before they go through it, otherwise they could be scared or shocked by the changes. Find out more about girls and puberty and boys and puberty.

Girls need to know about periods before they’re around 10 years old, and boys need to know about the changes they can expect before they’re around 12. There’s no reason for girls and boys not to learn the same things. For example, boys can learn about periods, and girls can learn about erections.

If your child is approaching the age where they need to know about puberty or sex and relationships, but they’re not asking questions about it, use everyday situations to lead to the conversation. For example, you could talk about a story in a TV programme, or bring up periods when you see sanitary pads in a shop.

Tell your child that they’re growing up, there will be some changes that happen to everyone and you want to let them know what to expect.

Why Your Child Should Know About Sex

Children need to know about sex, pregnancy, contraception and safer sex before they start any sexual activity. This is so they will know what to think about, such as safer sex and not doing anything they don’t want to do. This way, they can make decisions that are right for them when the time comes.

Most young people in the UK don’t have sex until they’re at least 16. Those who have sex before that age will need to know how to look after themselves.

Everyone needs to know about safer sex, whether they’re straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Women can pass STIs on to women and men can pass STIs on to men. For more information, see sexual health for women who have sex with women and for men who have sex with men.

Have an Answer Ready For Awkward Situations

No matter how open you are about sex, there will be times when you need a quick answer to deal with awkward questions, for example, in the supermarket queue or on a bus.

Say something like, “That’s a good question. I’d like to talk about that when we get home”, or “That’s a good question, but we need to talk about it in private”. Make sure you remember to talk about it later.

Read a useful leaflet on talking to your child about sex and relationships (PDF, 1.54Mb).

To find out where to get more information on sex, relationships, contraception and STIs, see Who can I go to for advice?

Course on Talking About Sex and Relationships for Parents

Researchers from Coventry University have designed an online course to help parents talk with their children about sex and relationships.

Parents can choose three modules covering the importance of communication and skills and timing for how they talk with their child.

Advice and examples are given for children aged 5 to 10, and also for tweens and teens.

Check out the course: Besavvy About Having Difficult Conversations.

Talking About Drugs with Your Child

It can be difficult to talk about drugs with your kids, but a few key pointers can make it a whole lot easier. Use these tips to help you talk openly about drugs with your child.

1. Do Your Homework
drug,Make sure you understand enough about drugs, including why your child might experiment with them, so you can talk to your child in an informed way. Understanding the facts about drugs will also help you keep calm in a crisis.

Get your information from reliable, credible sources such as the drugs website FRANK. In the US, the National Institute on Drug Abuse website has detailed information on Commonly Abused Drugs.*

2. Pick a Good Time
Don’t do it before they rush off to school. Or, if they are using drugs, don’t confront them when they’re high on drugs.

3. Take the Opportunities to Talk When They Arise
It may help to do it when the subject comes up during TV programmes or in the news. Mealtimes can also be a good forum for discussion.

4. Let Them Know Your Values and Boundaries
It’s important for your children to know where you stand on drug taking. Be clear about your opinions on drugs so that they know your boundaries.

5. It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Drugs
It’s a good idea to start talking about the issue before they start experimenting with drugs. Make them feel strong and independent enough to be able to say no.

6. Avoid Scare Tactics
Your teenage children often know more people who take drugs than you do, so there’s no point in saying, “Smoking cannabis will kill you”. But if you point out that cannabis can cause mental health problems and make people forgetful and unmotivated, that will seem realistic to them and be more of a deterrent.

7. Know Their Friends
Peer pressure is the single most powerful factor in determining whether or not your child will take drugs. Get to know their friends. Invite them to the house and take an interest in what’s going on in their lives. If you have good reason to think your child’s friends are involved in drugs, you may need to support your child to find a new circle of friends.

8. Let Them Know You’re Always There for Them
That way they can be honest with you about what they’re up to and they won’t just tell you what they think you want to hear.

9. Listen as Well as Talk
Talking to teenagers can be hard. When you’re discussing drugs, don’t preach or give a speech and don’t make assumptions about what they know or do. Let your child tell you about his or her experiences. It’s often easier not to talk face-to-face, but to have a conversation side-by-side, such as when you’re driving in the car, washing up together or preparing food.

10. Persevere
Don’t be provoked or put off talking if they argue, get embarrassed or storm off. Parents’ opinions matter to their children. Revisit the subject when they’ve calmed down.

11. Make Sure They Know that the Responsibility for Their Actions Rests With Them
You’re trying to help your child make good choices in life about drugs. But only they can say no to drugs. Be sure they know you support them, but emphasise that it’s up to them to make the positive decision to be drug free.

12. Be Realistic
It’s common for teenagers to experiment with drugs. Remember that only a small proportion of those who experiment will develop a drug problem.

13. Don’t Panic
If you find out that your child has tried drugs, your first reaction may be anger or panic. Wait until you’re calm before discussing it with them, and do so in a way that shows your love and concern rather than anger.

Getting Help
If your child is using drugs and you are worried, find out about the help available in Drugs: where to get help. In the US, see the resources on the website of the Office of Adolescent Health (from the Dept. of Health and Human Services) – and “Above the Influence“, a website on drug use specifically for teens.*

Get Support for Yourself
If your child has drug problems, get support for yourself. Lots of organisations offer support to parents and carers, including those below. In the US, see the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.*

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.


Sex and Sexual Health – 5 Reasons for Being Open with Kids

Talking about sex and relationships with your children as they grow up can help them look after their sexual health when they start having sex.

It won’t make them want to start having sex. Here are five good reasons to be open about sex with your child.

Your Child Wants the Facts About Sex

Why-talk-about-sex-wth-kidsA survey found that one in four (25%) teenagers feels confused, worried or even scared about sex and relationships, and that most teens would like to talk to their parents or carer about it.

Teenagers see images of sex in films, magazines, newspapers, adverts, on television and on the internet, but this doesn’t mean that they know the facts. They may be receiving confused and inaccurate messages. You can help them know what’s true and what’s not.

Talking About Sex Helps Them Wait

Evidence shows that if you talk to your teen about sex and relationships, they’ll feel less pressure to have sex, which means they’re more likely to wait. Talking openly gives them the confidence to approach the topic with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the future.

It Helps Them Make Decisions About Sex

By ensuring that your child knows about contraception (the methods, how they work and where to get them) and safer sex, you are helping them to make choices when they decide to have sex.

You’ll help them avoid taking risks that could lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Every teenager should know about contraception and safer sex, whether they’re a boy or girl, lesbian or gay, straight or bisexual.

Chlamydia is a Real Risk

Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI. Seventy per cent of girls and 50% of boys who are infected have no symptoms. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause complications, including infertility.

Your teenager needs to know that condoms help protect against infections such as chlamydia and other STIs. They also need to know where to get tested. A simple urine test or swab can detect chlamydia, which can be easily treated.

Find sexual health services in your area.

You Can be the Person They Trust

Once in secondary school (middle school*), your child will be going through puberty and hearing half-truths and myths from other kids. They might think that everyone else is having sex, but the truth is that most teenagers don’t have sex until they’re at least 16 (17 in the U.S.*).

This is a great opportunity to become someone that your child can go to for information, help and advice.

For ideas on how to start the conversation on sex and relationships, see Talking to your teen.

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US audience.

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