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Helping Parents to have Difficult Conversations with their Children

There are many topics that parents dread having to talk about with their children as they age:

Puberty, alcohol and drug use, death, natural disasters, or separation and divorce. Unfortunately, avoiding the conversations (and your own discomfort within this) doesn’t make them go away. Instead, in many cases it is better for your family if you are the one to share the education or information in a way that is aligned with your family values, and you can be sure that they are receiving accurate and safe information. By taking the time to talk with children about difficult topics, helps to reassure them that you are empathetic, understanding and that you are there to support them when they need it. The approach taken to the conversation will change as your child matures, so too does their emotional awareness.

How to Approach a Tricky Conversation with Children:

Toddlers: At this stage of development, a toddler understands the difference between their basic emotions: happy, sad, scared, and angry. When sharing difficult information with a younger child, it helps to remember that their understanding of emotions is in the early stages of development and also that the relationship between concepts is also continuing to form, so it is important to keep the conversation short and simplified: for example, “Grandma is unwell, and I feel sad about that”. So, when talking to a young child about this, it is best to use simple language and feeling words that they understand, for example, “Grandma has died and now she is in heaven. We won't see her anymore and I feel very sad”.         

School-Age Children:

Moving into the primary-school aged years, a child’s brain is developing rapidly, they are also developing greater emotional maturity. During this time of learning and growth, processing all this new information and feelings can be quite overwhelming for them. While when talking with a child of this age, a parent can share more complex emotions, emotional experiences and mature details, the child may require help processing and regulating their feelings:

Examples of more detailed information: “Grandma was unwell for some time. Now she has died.”


How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation with your Child:

Children don’t always give us time to prepare for a tricky conversation, but where possible, it helps to take some time to mentally prepare for certain topics before them arise.

·       Choose a location that is comfortable and private for both of you

·       Be prepared for lots of hugs during times of reassurance.

·       Let your child know that they can ask as many questions as they need.

·       Be honest

·       Use previous life experiences to provide context, understanding, but also build resilience, for example, “it was very sad when my first dog died, but in time I remembered all the good times that we had together.”

·       Where possible talk to your child yourself or have a close loved one if you are not able.

·       Revisit the difficult conversation again in a weeks’ time, even if they don’t ask any more questions. This provides time for your child to process information but provides an opportunity for them to ask questions and be supported emotionally or with their curiosity to learn.

·       If there are certain topics that you find more challenging, then it may help to have another person assist with the conversation or step in to help.

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