10 Mar A Conversation to Remember: How to Talk to Kids About Tough Topics
By: Jessica Travis, M.S. and Brittney Walters, LCSW
No matter how hard adults try to shield children from having to encounter distressing news and tragedies, young people will still have access to what is occurring in the world, which can be terrifying for parents.
In recent weeks we have seen political and social unrest unfold before our eyes between Russia and Ukraine. You may have children of your own, nieces and nephews or young people in your life who are struggling to understand what they are hearing on the news or watching unfold on social media. When discussing heavy topics with the children in your lives, there are three primary things to remember.
- Make sure you have given yourself enough time and done the work to process the information on your own.
- Think about the message you want to convey.
- Enter the conversation with a commitment to remain honest and vulnerable.
Even as adults, it can be difficult to dialogue or even understand social events that happen around us, especially when families are losing their livelihoods, living spaces, family members and so much more. Before discussing difficult topics with children, it is important to process the information for yourself so that you understand your own feelings and emotions attached to the situation. Doing this emotional processing proactively will assist you in maintaining emotional regulation during the conversation. It will also help you stay present and focused on your child’s emotions, rather than being distracted by your own thoughts and feelings. Remaining attentive, focused and present is key for these types of discussions.
When approaching a difficult topic with a child, it is important to think about and clarify what message you are trying to convey. Practice out loud prior to engaging with a child. Talk with your partner or support system about how you are feeling and what you hope to gain in the encounter. These steps can help you be more confident in your delivery. Having a clear message about heavy topics will aid in their understanding of what you want them to know, too. Timing is also critical. We suggest finding an appropriate time of day when emotions are stable, and energy is well-suited for this type of discussion (i.e. not right when they wake up or before bedtime). Find a quiet moment to have this discussion so the message can be clearly heard and understood. It is essential to let children know that you are the person they can come to when they are scared or confused. You can also let them know that they might have additional questions even after the conversation, which is normal.
Remaining vulnerable is vital to having open and honest communication, particularly around heavy topics. Sharing how you are feeling allows children to see adults as humans and gives us an opportunity to model healthy behaviors. Be truthful and give them facts in a way that is age appropriate. Also, know that not having the answers is completely okay! In fact, research shows that adults who model humility and not having all the answers have closer attachments to children when it comes to communication. The most valuable part of a difficult conversation is to give reassurance to the child that you will be with them while they process what is happening.
Approaching complex topics with children can induce feelings of anxiety and worry for parents, caregivers and all adults. Helpful methods of self-care during difficult times can look like taking a walk, turning off the news or taking a break from social media, having screen-free time and maintaining healthy sleeping and eating routines. Please remember to take care of yourself and seek professional help if necessary. A professional mental health provider at CHRIS 180 can assist in creating self-care plans for yourself and your family, and help you learn to guide conversations in a meaningful way. If you want to make an appointment, contact our Care Team at Care.Team@CHRIS180.org or call 770-722-0080.
Jessica Travis, M.S. is a therapist in CHRIS 180’s School-Based Mental Health Program and Brittney Walters, LCSW is VP, School-Based Mental Health. To learn more about their program, visit CHRIS180.org/what-we-do/counseling/schoolbasedservices/