If you’re a parent, you’ve been there. Minding your own business, and out of nowhere one of the kids comes up and asks a ‘sticky’ question. You know the kind of question. The one that doesn’t have a simple answer. At all. Like when my four year old first asked “Where do babies come from?” big, innocent eyes peering at me over the top of my teacup.
Even more difficult questions are those that cannot be explained in black-and-white terms. Ones like “Why doesn’t Uncle Bob come visit anymo
re?” or “Why did grandma have to die?” or even “What if an airplane fell on our house, mummy?” Most of us feel a little lost in those situations. And because they are often complicated, emotionally ‘heavy’ questions, we can be taken aback and find ourselves floundering, not knowing quite what to say. Or worse still we might simply shrug it off and fire back the good old-faithful “Oh, that’s not ever going to happen to you/us”.
But yes… it might happen ….
So here are some tips to help you talk with kids about and through even the most ‘sticky’ topics while maintaining your sense of “I’ve got this”:
1. Find out what your child knows
Start by finding out what your child knows. They may need reassurance more than a summary of facts or a history lesson. An example might be a young child who has seen some disturbing information on the television news. A young person was kidnapped, or a plane crashed into a house. It is completely normal for a child to take that piece of information and apply it to their life in a way that seems silly to us adults. But it is very real for them – depending on age, there is little to no distinction between reality and fantasy.
Ask them straight out what they’ve heard, where they heard it and how they feel about it. In this type of situation, if they tell you that they are afraid that they will die, or the house will go on fire, or nobody will hear them call, you will hear that they’re most afraid about their personal safety. So talk about how safe they are, the people and services that are in place to maintain their safety (police, firefighters, etc.). This will be far more reassuring than spouting statistics about how rare it is for such a thing to happen.
You will also be better able to answer in a way that suits their developmental level if you check in to see where their thoughts and feelings are on a subject.
Remember: Books and Google pale in comparison to your own relationship, experience and intuition with your child!
2. Be open to the small – and big – conversations
Sometimes a child has easy-to-answer questions or statements that lead up to more ‘sticky’ ones. Like: “Mom, did you know that Marcy’s parents are getting divorced?” can lead to “Does that mean that Marcy’s dad/mom won’t love her anymore?” to “What if you and Dad get divorced?”.
Again, you might be tempted to answer with a quick “that’s not going to happen, silly!” or “Of course they will love her”. And that might work just fine. But remember – children like to know you are really listening and hearing them. And maybe they’re asking about how and where their place is in your world.
So perhaps this: “Sweetie, I don’t know Marcy or her mom and dad very well, but I’m quite sure that they will always love Marcy just the same. I know this because no matter what might happen, nothing could change how your dad and I feel about you at all!”
3. Trust your Relationship
Sometimes we either do not have what we think is the ‘answer’ for the latest question, or the question might trigger all kinds of feelings that we find difficult to manage ourselves.
“Mom, why do you not talk to grandma anymore?”
If you find you are triggered about a particular topic, you can simply say that you would love to be able to explain that right now, but that you are working on being able to give them a helpful reply.
Then actually go work on it! Talk about the issues you are dealing with (with other adults), read, talk to friends, a partner, a therapist. Get as ‘okay’ with your relationships and other things as possible, so that you can answer the hard questions.
Kids are learning from you – and it is as important to have a good answer as it is to demonstrate how to handle it when you don’t. Even if that answer is “I don’t know, but I’ll try and find out”. Trust that your relationship with your child will withstand you figuring out how to talk to them about things that are difficult to talk about.
4. Limit exposure to media about events
Children are very susceptible to images and sounds portrayed in the media – more than we are as adults – in part because they have a more difficult time separating fact from fiction, reality from fantasy.
Limit exposure to the news or other media, especially when they are transmitting images and information about traumatic events. And limit how much you talk about disturbing events with other adults while children are present. They might look like they’re engrossed in “Frozen”, but they’re always listening. Think of them as having big flapping ears dotted all over their cute little heads.
5. Go slow
As a wise nine-year-old once told me (yesterday…ahem!) when talking about ‘sticky’ things with children, go slow. Allow kids time to think about what they are going to – or need to – say. Kids process feelings and thoughts a little differently than adults do, and they often have a hard time putting into words what they are concerned about. Allow them time to think about your questions, and try not to force them to answer on your timetable.
6. Don’t elaborate
Children ask questions in a literal sense. They don’t need background information or extra add-ons. Listen out for the actual question and answer only that. They know what they they want to know – trust that.
7. Be prepared to talk about it again. And again!
Children process in layers. And they often need to ask the same (or similar) questions over and over until they understand the answer(s). When it is a ‘sticky’ subject, try not to brush off their fortieth “But mom, what IF Marcy’s mom doesn’t love her anymore?” with a gruff “I’ve told you already – stop bugging me!”. And remember, we are more likely to brush off someone else’s concerns when we are not comfortable talking about the issue ourselves (see point 3 above).
Children process in increasingly abstract levels, depending on their age. So an answer you give to a 6 year old will no longer work when they get to 8, 10 , 15. They’ll need tailor-made information so be prepared for stage / age related repetition and embellishment. You will know how much based on asking them about what they know (see point 1 above).
Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have the ‘right answer’ when your kid asks you a ‘sticky’ question. Often there is no right answer, sometimes there is. Being willing to talk with your child about difficult things shows them that ‘sticky’ issues are not something to be avoided, and answers and solutions can evolve from communicating.
You’ve got this! …and we’ve got your back.