This is Part 20 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABC’s for Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- Start teaching communication skills and modeling healthy conversations for children from the day they are born.
- Consider how to have age-appropriate conversations with your children, but don’t avoid hard topics.
- Think about what you want your child or teen to get out of a tough conversation before you sit down to have it. There are good resources to help, but remember, there is no perfect script.
There are many challenging conversations you’re likely to face with children and teens, particularly as they get older and have more life experiences.
These conversations could be about events and emotions, such as grieving the loss of a loved one. They might involve questions about world or community issues like violence or injustice. You also may have to talk with them about their own behaviors and decisions around things like reckless driving, substance use, sexual health, or mental health concerns.
Parents and caregivers don’t always admit to their struggles with tough conversations. It’s easier to discuss the kids’ last sports match or plans for the holiday season than to fret over how to talk about something painful, uncomfortable, or frustrating.
The truth is that hard conversations are part of raising children and teens. They can’t be avoided. But parents and caregivers can do their best to have these conversations in a way that is healthy.
Teach communication skills early
The interactions that infants and young children have with adults lay the foundation for conversations later in life. By teaching communication skills from a young age, you prepare your child to express themselves clearly and talk openly.
Talk to your infant or toddler often, even before they are able to speak in full words or sentences. Use real words and full thoughts of your own. Make eye contact and use nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language. Remember that a conversation is a lot more than just words, and children often react more to the nonverbal cues than the verbal ones.
Listen to young children. Even if they are making nonsensical sounds or baby babble, give them your attention as though they are saying something important. Respond to their noises and expressions. Help them learn the back-and-forth, give-and-take of a two-way conversation. Show them that you are actively listening to them.
It’s also a good idea to read aloud to young children, daily if you are able. Reading helps improve learning, vocabulary, and engagement. You are giving your child tools to learn and communicate.
Avoid raising your voice in anger or using sharp, angry gestures or facial expressions, even when you are upset. Parents feel strong emotions and they need to express them, but yelling teaches destructive communication habits rather than constructive ones.
You are modeling good behaviors for your children. Show them what a healthy, productive conversation looks like, both in how you speak with them and how you speak with others.
Have age-appropriate conversations, but don’t avoid hard topics
There are some topics kids need to be mature enough to understand and process. Keep in mind what is age-appropriate for your child’s comprehension, but don’t let that stop you from talking about hard stuff.
By preschool and early elementary, kids can express themselves with words. Start talking about emotions and help them define how they are feeling and why. Emotions are nuanced. Are they angry, or are they frustrated or overstimulated? Are they sad, or are they disappointed or uncertain? There is so much beneath the surface, even for little kids – maybe especially for little kids.
These younger years also are a good time to talk about safety. Help them learn about hazards like a fire, flood, or earthquake without scaring them. Empower them to stay safe. Explain that emergencies can happen, and that is why you are working together as a family to be ready, just in case.
Answer questions – on any topic, serious or silly – with honesty. Sometimes that means “I don’t know.” That’s OK. Let them see that you are human, and you don’t know everything but you’re willing to learn.
Teach children the correct names for their body parts, including private areas. It may be awkward if they start loudly using their new terminology in a group setting, but it is important that they can communicate with a trusted adult clearly about personal health and safety, and that they are not scared or ashamed to talk about their bodies if they think something might be wrong.
In upper elementary and middle school, kids start growing into new friendships and activities, and likely will seek more freedom from parents. They may not offer as many updates without prompting. So prompt them. Make time every day to check in with them. When you do need to have a tough conversation, it shouldn’t be the first chat you’ve sat down to in days or weeks. Talking with trusted adults should feel normal for kids.
You should also start having compassionate but frank conversations about big feelings and life changes, including puberty. Know that mature topics won’t wait until they are “all grown up” to present themselves. For example, being able to talk about addiction with a child or tween could make a big difference in preventing drug misuse later. They likely already know people who are impacted by addiction, or they may be hearing about drugs from other kids or in media they watch, read, or listen to.
By the time they are in high school, teens are capable of more tough discussions than you may realize. Don’t shy from uncomfortable conversations.
Ask deeper questions. Instead of “How was your day?”, ask about specific activities, friendships, or interests. Build trust and set yourself up to understand them better when you need to face something sensitive.
When you land on hard topics, ask them what they think, what they’ve heard, and what they’ve experienced. Let them bring up their questions and concerns. They will see things happening in the world and their life that can really shake them, and it’s vital that they have people they trust to help them process and learn.
Your teen also may behave in ways that require you to confront them with a tense and unwanted conversation. Don’t postpone those talks. The sooner you talk to them about risky behaviors like reckless driving, substance use, or unsafe physical relationships, the sooner you can intervene and the more likely you can help stop the risky behavior from escalating.
There is no script
There are some great tools out there to help inform your approach to specific topics. We’ve listed a few of them here, but there are many more worth exploring:
The reality, though, is that there is no perfect script for tough conversations.
Part of what makes tough conversations, well, tough is that they are so personal. The key piece of any interaction will be the relationship with your child and your ability to be a trusted voice and good listener.
There will be times when one or both of you leave a conversation feeling emotionally wrung out or misunderstood. There are other times you’ll feel good about the words and bond you shared.
Take time to think about the most important things you want your child or teen to get out of a tough conversation. Are you looking for them to feel safe, heard, and comforted because they are going through a hard time? Do you need them to change a dangerous behavior? Are you wanting them to increase their knowledge to avoid a risk before it happens? Do you need to find an agreement or resolution to ease tension in your family or home? Any of those can be a tough conversation, but it helps to know your goal and keep it in mind.
Take some time now to check off the “T” in the ABC’s for healthy kids. Are you ready to tackle some tough conversations with your child or teen?
Having a healthy approach to the hard discussions parents and caregivers will face with children is part of keeping your family healthy.