Difficult conversations with children require forethought

difficult conversationsFor all life’s joys, it also brings its share of challenges, including when it comes to having difficult conversations with children.

As parents, we hope to postpone many of those challenges for our children, but they come sooner or later. The way we talk with our children through difficult conversations and times can make a tremendous difference in their ability to cope not only with the present situation but those in the future as well.

Approach to difficult conversations depends on individual factors

There is no one correct way to discuss difficult topics with your children. Your approach should depend on the relationship you have with them along with their personalities and needs.

In every instance, however, be sure to think through what you want to say before you say it. If your child asks a difficult question out of the blue, it is OK to tell him you need to think about how best to explain it. Take the time needed to be sure your response is appropriate for his developmental stage, rooted in the values you wish to instill and addresses the matter at hand in a straightforward manner.

Whatever the topic, it helps to move beyond the conceptual to the practical. Here are four scenarios to get you started.


Explaining a serious illness to your child

You or your spouse is seriously, possibly fatally, ill.

All Ages

Explain that you are ill and likely to become more so and that it is likely to last a while. Do not discuss death until it’s clearly inevitable and imminent. If your child asks if you are going to die, you may say “Yes, someday. I don’t know when,” and talk about how everyone and everything dies eventually.

Preschool and Early Elementary

In addition to explaining you are sick, reassure your child that you are going to continue seeing the doctor and taking your medicine (making it a teaching moment). Keep it brief so as not to overload her young mind, but encourage her to ask questions. If the illness means you can’t pick her up for a while or imposes other limitations, say so, but also reassure her that her needs will be met and she will be taken care of — especially if you will be spending time in the hospital.


Tell your tween child that you are going to work hard to get healthy and that you may need a little extra help from him at home. Again, encourage him to ask questions, but understand that while kids this age may want to know more, they may be afraid to ask. They tend to lurk instead, trying to overhear conversations to get more information. They may need extra encouragement to talk. Assure them that you’ve made all the arrangements necessary to keep their lives running smoothly, such as arranging car pools for extracurricular activities.


Teens are more likely to show anger to hide their fear. Tell your teen, “Ask me whatever you want and if you want a straight answer, I’ll give you one.”  Teens will want more information. Reassure yours that you will work together as a family to be sure everyone’s needs are met, even as you undergo treatment.


Explaining divorce to your child

Close friends or relatives are getting a divorce.

All Ages

Before explaining anything, assess your child’s current understanding of the situation so you know where to begin.

Preschool/Early Elementary

Ask your child if she knows what ‘divorce’ means. The inevitable question will be “Is that going to happen to us?”  Keep your answer simple: “Mommy and Daddy are together. We love you, and you are always going to be a priority for us.”


Address your tween together with your spouse, explaining, “Mommies and daddies fight or argue sometimes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t stay together. We are not planning on divorcing each other.”  Resist the temptation to say you never will because many divorced couples once swore the same.


Ask teens what questions they have about the situation. Their answers could be wide-ranging from “I’m not surprised” to “Doesn’t anyone stay married any more?”   This is not an opportunity to lecture, but it is an opportunity for you to discuss relationships, choosing partners, compatibility and the importance of similar goals and values.


Explaining teen pregnancy to your child

Your single, teenage sister is pregnant.

All Ages

It’s always appropriate to frame your responses according to your family’s values. Additionally, kids can tell if a parent is really uncomfortable with a topic and will probably avoid asking. But remember it’s in your best interest — and your child’s — to be the go-to source for information.

Preschool/Early Elementary

The biggest question on these youngsters minds is “How did the baby get in there?”  You can simply explain there is a seed inside the mommy that grows into a baby. Part of the baby is from the mommy and part of it is from the daddy. If your child asks about the daddy, explain that because they are young, they are not choosing to be married.


If you haven’t already, this is the time to turn to some books. Choose one that fits with your values and explain how the seed gets inside the mommy. Again, talk about it within your personal principles. If your family believes in abstinence until marriage, explain that. If you support the use of birth control, explain that too. Give your children as much information as is necessary to answer their questions without overwhelming them.


By this age, kids will know how the seed got into their aunt’s body. This conversation is more about what your child thinks of the situation, reasons it may be better to wait a little longer to have sex and/or children and ways they might avoid a similar scenario.


Explaining bigotry to your child

Your child comes home repeating bigoted statements he or she has overheard.

All Ages

Take a deep breath and try not to overreact to the statements, then begin by asking what your child thinks about what she’s heard.

Preschool/Early Elementary

With young children, it’s important to keep things concrete. Explain that words can hurt, and draw on examples such as “How would you feel if someone called you ‘stupid?’” Tell your child you disagree with the statement and it hurts you when you hear those kinds of words from other people.


Ask your tween to talk more about the situation, what he heard and how he feels about it. He may not understand all the of the terms and how hurtful they can be. As with younger children, express directly how much you disagree with the statements. Try to help your child understand how it would feel to be the object of such comments, emphasizing that in your family, you look for the good in other people.


Many teens have no idea how it feels to be a minority. So in addition to talking about the power of words, help your teen see that while no two people are exactly the same, we are all still humans with feelings that can be hurt by the negative labels others might attach to us. To build empathy, expose teens to situations where they are the minority, such as a church of another religion, a local ethnic celebration or a gathering of people with different sexual identities. These experiences will help kids maintain an open mind about differences.

Communicating accurate, honest information is best for kids

Whatever the topic and in all discussions, accurate, honest information helps children become more responsible and make better choices. So instead of dreading the day these difficult discussions arise, anticipate it, think about it and decide now how you want to handle it. Rest assured, children will learn about these topics one way or another. It’s up to you as a parent to decide whether they’ll learn about them from someone else — framed in that person’s value system — or from you, the person who loves and cares most for them.