One of the most challenging jobs of parenting is talking to our kids about difficult topics, like the death of a beloved cat, divorce or how to face classmates’ bullying.
Young children (age 2-6 years old) don’t have enough life experience and are very sensitive to their parents' emotional states, because their primary relationships (mum, dad, siblings, even the family dog) are the center of their world. Even if some parents try to avoid the difficult topics, hoping their kids don’t notice, kids know when something is going on and can sense the tension. So, even if it can be challenging and unpleasant for parents, it’s very important to discuss challenging topics with them.
Here are some practical tips on how to have difficult conversations with your child:
Create a safe and trusted environment for discussion. A child should feel secure in a place where she/he can openly express her/his thoughts, opinions and feelings without being judged, mocked or diminished.
Find out what they know. Offer them a kind and compassionate ear and ask what they’ve heard and from which source.
Speak openly about feelings. Ask them: ‟What are you feeling right now?’’ Reassure them by saying, ‟It’s OK to feel sad, scared, confused. These feelings are natural and we all feel them. If you are sad, be sad. Feelings are like clouds - they come and go. Don’t hide your feelings.’’ Be honest and explain to them what and how you feel. For example, ‟I am upset, but not with you.’’ It’s important to make a child understand that she/he is not the origin of your current emotional state.
Use vocabulary and synonyms your child is familiar with. Recall a recent, similar situation from their lives that they can relate to. Read a book together that tells a story about the specific challenging subject (grief, bullying, etc.). Does the child have difficulties expressing her/himself verbally? Let her/him draw upon the specific situation or use role playing with her/his favorite plush toy.
Keep it simple. Answer questions simply and directly. Avoid over-explaining as that could make the child confused or even more scared. Use short, straight-forward sentences with appropriate age explanations. For example, ‘‘Grandma had to go to hospital last night. Her heart was too sick and stopped beating. She had heart surgery and the doctors saved her life. She will need to rest a lot now.’’
Reassure them. End by saying, ‟If you have any other questions, or want to talk about this later, I’m here for you.’’ Reassure your child, in both words and gesture. Let your kid feel that she/he is safe and loved.