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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.

Video: How to Recognize and Deal with Child Sexual Abuse

It can be difficult to know whether a child is being abused, as the abuser may be secretive about their actions. In this video, aimed at parents and carers, a child sex abuse consultant from the Marie Collins Foundation explains what to do if you think a child is being harmed, and how to discuss the subject of abuse with a child.

Editor’s Note: Video Highlights 

Child sexual abuse is any sexual behaviour directed towards children…by adults, male and female, and by young people themselves.

Child Sexual Abuse Involves Activities Ranging from:

  • Voyeurism
  • to rape of children
  • and now involves sexual behavior online

What Do We Need to Know

  • 1 in 6 young adults reported being sexually abused before age 16 (results of recent UK study)
  • Very few (~25%) tell anyone due to extensive guilt
  • Impact can be extensive

Signs to look for

  • Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys/objects
  • Nightmares/sleeping problems
  • Withdrawing or becoming clingy
  • Personality changes or regressing to younger behaviors
  • Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Physical signs
  • Becoming secretive

How Do We Handle This

  • If someone makes you uncomfortable around your child, and you suspect someone is abusing your child – call a helpline and talk to someone
    • UK: 0808 1000 900
    • US & Canada: 800-422-4453
    • Australia: 1 800 55 1800
  • Talk to your child
    • adjust the conversation to their age
    • try not to act shocked – be reassuring
    • try not to interrupt other than to check that the child is alright
    • let them know you will keep them safe, but you will need to bring in help – the police or children’s services – to do that.

It’s a big step to make that call and accuse someone and we often hesitate – but if you don’t – know that the abuse will continue and the child or children could be affected for the rest of their life.

Additional UK Resources:

  • Childline: 0800 1111
  • NSPCC National Child Protection Helpline: 0800 8005000
  • Child Exploitation and Online Protection:
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A Day in the Life of an Anxious Stepmother

How do you cope with worry over your children? I have always been a worst case scenario type of woman. I struggle with anxiety on a nearly daily basis. My step-son, however,  has never evoked particular anxiety in me. He’s a sweet kid and funny to talk to. I enjoy spending time with him and we usually just hang out and play with legos or chase each other in the yard.

We don’t see each other often and I’ve never experienced him falling or injuring himself in one of the numerous ways I hear boys his age do. I had never truly feared for his safety until a couple of weeks ago. 

My husband and I went for a day hike up in North Georgia. We only bother with our phones during a day hike if we are worried about getting lost. Usually, we keep them on airplane mode or even leave them in the car. We hiked probably five miles that day before heading back around dinner time.

My husband checked his phone for the first time as we approached the car. He had a text from his mom saying that his son had fallen and hit his head on the radiator and they were in the emergency room. That was all it took. The anxiety took over in a matter of minutes. I trained as an EMT, I know what head trauma can do. I have experience with brain injuries caused by concussions and now all of that prior knowledge is flooding into my thoughts. I need more information.

I urge my husband to call his mom since the message was an hour ago. He glances at me pointedly and calls her. No one answers. We call her a couple of more times, no response. I am flustered. Why would she only send that one text? Don’t they know we need to know how bad it is?!

My husband calls his dad who answers the phone with a smile in his voice, I am annoyed instead of relieved. How can he smile at a time like this? I must know how badly my step-son is hurt. I need all the information.

I start whispering commands to my husband about what to ask and when his dad says “well, he won’t need to have his head removed,” I start sputtering so loudly that my husband gets annoyed. It should be noted, he has not panicked at any point.

It turned out that everything was fine, there would be bruising and if he fell and hit his head again, he would need to see a doctor immediately. My husband’s parents scheduled a follow-up appointment and that was that. We called Darion later to check on him and he was excited to watch Doctor Who all night.

My panic was unwarranted and next time, I will try harder to keep my calm until I actually know what’s going on. Both for my own mental sake and the sake of those around me.

I only realized later how badly I had freaked out and it made me think about those of you who do this full time. I’m deeply impressed with the mental strength and fortitude is takes to be a parent.

Mental health is so important and you must have some amazing coping mechanisms.

Please know, I see you holding that crying baby and calmly catching your toddler before she can hit the ground again as she explores the sidewalk, and I am impressed. I know you’re working so hard to keep everything balanced and raise beautiful children and I want to recognize you for that and tell you that we will keep supporting you the best we can.

I would love to hear from you guys!

Tell me your stories of panic-inducing moments or drop tips in the comments about how you support your mental health as a parent or caregiver.

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?

Video: How Do I Explain Death to My Young Child

In this brief video, NHS Health Visitor Ruth discusses how to explain death to your young child and help them with the grieving process.

Editor’s Note: Video Highlights


  • Babies do not understand death, but they do recognize when someone they love is missing so they may have feeding and sleeping difficulties.
  • It will be helpful to:
    • Continuously reassure them
    • Maintain routines

2 Years and Older

  • At this age, children see death as reversible.
  • It will be helpful to:
    • Be specific – tell them someone has died – not is “gone”
    • Verify their understanding and clarify questions
    • Maintain routines including playtime
    • Reassure them that they are in no way responsible for the death of their loved one
  • Understand that they may not express their grief – this is not a sign they aren’t experiencing it
    • They may ask the same questions repeatedly to check that facts haven’t changed
    • Talk with them about their feelings when they are ready
  • Help them find a way to remember their loved one by looking through photos or creating a memory book


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How To Have a Conversation With Your Teenager

Getting teenagers to talk openly about what’s bothering them can be hard. Follow these tips to help get them talking to you about their worries.

1. Ask, don’t judge

Start by assuming they have a good reason for doing what they do. Show them you respect their intelligence and are curious about the choices they’ve made.

If you don’t pre-judge their behaviour as “stupid” or “wrong”, they’re more likely to open up and explain why their actions made sense to them.

2. Ask, don’t assume or accuse

Don’t assume that you know what’s wrong. Rather than asking “Are you being bullied?”, try saying “I’ve been worried about you. You don’t seem your usual self, and I wondered what’s going on with you at the moment? Is there anything I can help with?”.

3. Be clear you want to help

If you suspect your child is using drugs or drinking excessively, be gentle but direct. Ask them, and let them know that you’ll help them through any of their difficulties.

4. Be honest yourself

Teenagers will criticise you if you don’t follow your own advice. If you drink too much alcohol yourself, for example, they’re likely to mention it (“You can’t talk!”). Make sure you’re acting responsibly yourself.

5. Help them think for themselves

Instead of trying to be the expert on your teenager’s life, try to help them think for themselves:

  • Discuss the potential implications of poor behaviour choices. For example, “How does smoking dope make you feel the next day? So, if you feel like that, how’s that going to affect you playing football?”
  • Help them think critically about what they see and hear. “So Paul said X: is that what you think?”
  • Help them feel that they can deal with life’s challenges. Remind them of what they’re good at and what you like about them. This will give them confidence in other areas of their lives.
  • Information is empowering. Point them towards websites that can give them information on drugs, sex and smoking so they can read the facts and make up their own minds.
  • Help them think of ways they can respond and cope. “So, when you feel like that, is there anything you can do to make yourself feel better?”
  • Encourage them to think through the pros and cons of their behaviour.

6. Pick your battles

If they only ever hear nagging from you, they’ll stop listening. Overlooking minor issues, such as the clothes they wear, may mean you’re still talking to each other when you need to negotiate – or stand firm – with them on bigger issues, such as drugs and sex.

7. If they get angry, try not to react

Teenagers often hit out at the people they most love and trust, not because they hate you, but because they feel confused.

Don’t think that they mean the bad things they say (“I hate you!”). They may just feel confused, angry, upset, lost or hormonal, and they don’t know how to express it.

8. Help them feel safe

Teenagers often worry that telling an adult will just make things worse. You need to be clear that you want to help them and won’t do anything they don’t want you to.

This may be particularly important with bullying. If your child opens up to you about bullying, explain that it isn’t acceptable. Listen to their fears and reassure them it’s not their fault.

Help build up their confidence by reassuring them that you’ll face the problem together.

9. Avoid asking questions they won’t answer

Sometimes you’ll find out more about your teenager if you ask open questions. If they have an eating disorder, for example, asking confrontational questions like “What did you eat for lunch?” or “Have you made yourself sick?” may mean you get a dishonest answer.

Sticking to open questions such as “How are you?” or “How has your day been?” helps your teenager talk to you about how they’re feeling.

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