Parenting is a tough job, and one of the hardest parts can be talking to our kids about difficult subjects. It’s hard explaining how the family goldfish is in the big bowl in the sky now, or that the washing machine shrunk their favourite jumper (again), or that their favourite teacher is leaving this term. And it can feel impossible to approach the big stuff, like violence or racism, the news and world-wide problems, bereavement or mental health.
But we live in an age where information is right at our fingertips. Even our younger children can be exposed to the really serious stories and so it’s important to face this head-on with them, rather than skirting around the subject. This might seem like it’ll stop them worrying, but avoiding difficult topics often does the opposite.
We can’t prevent bad things happening to us. We can prevent them from derailing our wellbeing. And we do this by normalising difficulty, allowing bad days and learning to manage our feelings.
Addressing the tough stuff with our kids helps them feel safer, can strengthen our bonds with them, and teaches them about the world. When we can equip our children with the tools to cope with difficulty, to overcome challenges, and to take setbacks in our stride, they will find the ebbs and flow of life much more manageable, with much less interference in their wellbeing.
Tackling the tough conversations with your kids:
Whatever the topic of the conversation, use these 6 tips to help you tackle the tough stuff with your kids.
Talk about it in small chunks
If our young people are asking and we want to talk about it, there’s a time and place - perhaps over dinner or on a walk, rather than right before bed or around smaller ears. Stick to shorter conversations to prevent us all from spiralling in our anxieties. You could look at the problem together and go through questions - don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers to their questions. When it comes to ending this conversation, check in with how they are feeling now - are they feeling more at ease, has it helped, do they need a bit more time to talk?
Make it age-appropriate
Approach the topic appropriately for their age. Our younger children won’t need all the details and we might use metaphors or stories to help them understand. It puts the topic into a perspective they can understand, rather than overwhelming them. For example, recently the affairs in the Ukraine and between Russia were all over the news, we might tell our younger children in this circumstance that one country isn’t being very nice to the other, like when there’s a fallout between children in the playground. It’s relatable and simple for them to understand the basics.
When we’re talking about tough topics its important to give our children and young people space to say how they are feeling about it, and try to listen without interrupting or telling them how to feel. We can be quick to shut down difficult feelings in people we care about because we don’t want them to feel anything but good. But there will be times when feeling down, worried or wobbly is completely normal, and it’s ok that our children experience this too. Listen to how they are, and work out ways to manage this with them.
Help them find reliable resources
School aged children can be exposed to all kinds of information about tough topics, from playground gossip, watching TV and the news, seeing things online and social media. And sometimes, these resources are not age appropriate, may be overwhelming and even inaccurate. Working together with our young people, to teach them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions, and look at a range of resources can help them to become critical thinkers. And this can help them digest big stories or difficult information, as well as manage their own feelings around it.
Be open about your own feelings
Notice your own state of mind when talking about tough stuff. We might be feeling worried, scared, sad, frustrated about something too, and our children can pick up on this in our voices, tones and the words we’re using. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk to them if we’re not comfortable, it means approach that with them, normalise the tough feelings that come with challenges. Explain that while it’s not particularly comfortable to feel, it’s normal. But we don’t want to add to their fear so do take your time, give yourself space to approach the conversation with clarity.
Explore coping strategies together
When things are tough and our feelings are difficult it can knock us down. So finding coping strategies that work to keep us afloat and can prevent our mental wellbeing from worsening are so useful. Explore these together, looking at different ways that help you they could try, or the things they enjoy doing that help them to relax. Part of talking about tough stuff is dealing with tough stuff too.
Big feelings: tough conversations won’t always be plain sailing, especially if the topic is personal or a sensitive subject. We can have big feelings, big reactions and big disruptions during these situations. Remember to be compassionate with yourself and your kids when things get heated, arguments happen or emotions are running high. It’s normal, we can handle it and we can learn how to cope with it.