How to Talk to Kids About Difficult Topics
PHOTO BY monkeybusinessimages/iStock
  • One of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects. It's hard enough to explain when Mr. Teddy Bear gets eaten by the washing machine, or how their bike got stolen at school, so it feels impossible to put into words the really big issues, such as violence, racism, drugs, and other weighty topics. But in the age of cell phone notifications, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage—when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories—it's important to face this challenge head-on.

    Addressing the tough stuff makes your kids feel safer, strengthens your bond, and teaches them about the world. And when you show them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions, and cross-check sources, they become critical thinkers. It's always sad to confront the issues the world hasn't been able to solve. But by investing our kids with knowledge, compassion, and strong character, we can give them all the tools they need to make things better.

    More from Smart Parenting

    When your kids learn about something scary or unsettling—say, a mass shooting, a suicide on a popular TV show, or graphic porn via an innocent Google search—most parents get that deer-in-the-headlights feeling. But it's always a good idea to use your kid's age and developmental stage as a guide to starting conversations, because kids absorb information differently as they grow from babies to teens. For example, young children are very literal. If you tell them a monster is under the bed, they'll fly across the room to avoid getting their ankles munched. Try that with a teen, and they'll tell you to take a flying leap. Understanding a bit about how kids perceive the world in each phase of their development helps you deliver information about it in the most age-appropriate way. Of course, every child brings his or her own sensitivities, temperament, experience, and other individual traits to any conversation. So use your best judgment as to how your child tends to takes in information to determine how deep to go.

    ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

    There are far too many difficult subjects in the world. But most of us wouldn't want to give up our dynamic, information-rich culture. The trade-off is frank, yet compassionate conversation that helps us all make sense of things that seem senseless. The tips below are general guidelines for discussing any difficult subject with kids age two through 12 based on childhood-development guidelines. 

    More from Smart Parenting

    Age 2–6
    Young children don't have enough life experience to understand some of the elements involved in complex, difficult topics. They also don't have a firm grasp on abstract concepts and cause and effect. Because they and their primary relationships (Mom, Dad, siblings, grandparents—even the family dog) are the center of their world, they focus on how things affect them. They're very sensitive to parents' emotional states and can worry that they did something to make you upset. All of this makes it challenging to explain big issues. On the other hand, you're better able to manage their media exposure, and they can usually move on fairly quickly.

    Keep the news at bay.
    Do what you can to limit small kids' exposure to age-inappropriate subjects by turning off or muting the TV and choosing media that's targeted to their age.

    Reassure with both words and gestures.
    Say, "You're safe. Mommy and Daddy are safe. And our family is safe." Hugs and snuggling work wonders, too.

    Address feelings -- yours and theirs.
    Say, "It's OK to feel scared, sad, or confused. Those feelings are natural and we all feel them." Also: "I'm upset, but not with you."

    ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

    Find out what they know.
    Your kids might not understand the issue very well. Ask them what they think happened before giving them any imagery.

    Break down issues to their simplest terms.
    For violent crime, say, "Someone used a gun to shoot people." For hate crimes, say, "Some groups of people still aren't treated equally or fairly." For rape, "A man hurt a woman."

    More from Smart Parenting

    Catch your own biases.
    We all have them. Say, "man," "woman," "girl," and "boy," not "fat guy," "homeless lady," "pretty little girl," or "black boy." Avoid describing a person's ethnicity, sexual identity, weight, financial status, and so on unless it's relevant to the issue.

    Use vocabulary, ideas, and relationships that they're familiar with.
    Recall a recent, similar situation from their lives that they can relate to. Say, "A man stole something. Remember when someone took your lunchbox?"

    Use basic terms for feelings such as "mad," "sad," "afraid," "happy," and "surprised."
    Young children understand emotions, but they don't totally understand mental illness. You can say that someone was angry too much or confused too much and needed extra help. Avoid idiomatic expressions that their young minds won't comprehend.

    Communicate that someone's in charge.
    Say, "Mommy and Daddy will make sure nothing bad happens to our family." Or, "The police will catch the bad guy."

    More from Smart Parenting

    Age 7–12
    Because kids in this age group can read and write, they get exposed to age-inappropriate content more often; however, younger kids in this range are still a little shaky on what's real and pretend. As kids gain abstract-thinking skills, real-world experience, and the ability to express themselves, they can grapple with difficult subjects and understand different perspectives.

    ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

    Because tweens are separating from their parents, entering into puberty, and interacting with media more independently, they come into contact with violent video games, hard-core pornography, distressing news like mass shootings, and online hate speech. They need to be able to discuss things without feeling shame or embarrassment.

    Wait for the right moment.
    At this age, kids are still very likely to come to you if they've heard about something frightening. You can feel them out to decide if they want to discuss something, but if they don't bring it up, don't feel you have to broach difficult subjects until they ask.

    Find out what they know.
    Ask your kids what they've heard, or if their friends at school are talking about something. Answer questions simply and directly—but try not to overexplain (because you could make them more scared).

    Create a safe space for discussion.
    Say, "These topics are hard to discuss—even for adults. Let's just talk. I won't be mad, and I want you to feel free to ask anything you want."

    Provide context and perspective.
    Kids need to understand the circumstances around an issue to fully make sense of it.

    More from Smart Parenting

    Address their curiosity.
    If your kid stumbles across grown-up material online, it might be time to find content that will let them learn about more mature subjects age-appropriately. Say, "Online pornography is something that some grown-ups look at. But it's not about love or romance and it can give you the wrong idea about sex. If you want to learn more about sex, I can give you some books to look at and we can talk more if you have questions." Or if your kid wants to explore serious topics in more depth than you can provide, say, "Let's find some news sources that offer current events written for kids."

    ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

    Be sensitive to kids' emotions and temperament.
    You never know what may trigger your kid. Check in by sharing how you feel and ask them how they feel. Say, "I feel angry when I know that someone got hurt." Or, "It makes me feel sad to hear that someone didn't get a good education or the right treatment to help them." And, "What are you feeling right now?"

    Encourage critical thinking.
    Ask open-ended questions to get kids to think more deeply about serious topics. Ask, "What did you hear?," "What did it make you think?," and "Why do you think that?" For older kids, you can ask, "Do you think families from other backgrounds would view this the same way as us?" And, "The news media hypes up stories so more people will pay attention. Why do you think this story is getting so much play?"

    Look for positives.
    There may not be a silver lining to every cloud, but try to be optimistic. Say, "A lot of people acted like heroes at the crime scene." Or, "Let's find ways that we can help."

    More from Smart Parenting

View More Stories About
View more articles