5 rules for having difficult conversations with young children

It’s important to know the deeper answers they need

Your kids, or children with whom you’re close, can stop you in your tracks with questions you didn’t expect, NPR (National Public Radio) warns you.


I know she died, but when is Grandma coming back?

Why is your skin darker than Mommy’s?

Why do we live here but Daddy doesn’t?

Are you the tooth fairy?

You make a mistake thinking you can just blithely answer the questions. There are thoughtful, meaningful, and satisfying (to them) ways and, well, there aren’t.

NPR offers five strategies and lots of resources. In short (visit the entire story on its website), they are:

1. When you get a tough question, listen for what the child is really asking.

Don’t rush to answer. Pause and ask for clarification. This does a few things. First, it buys you time to choose your words carefully. It also stops you from answering the wrong question.

2. Give them facts, but at a pace they can manage.

Whether you’re breaking news about the death of a loved one, a job loss or a serious illness, it’s important to understand that children process information a bit at a time. That means you should be prepared to revisit the topic, perhaps many times.

A hospice worker who specialized in talking with children about death gave Truglio this advice: Children take in information the same way they eat an apple. Instead of crunching through the whole fruit in one sitting, they nibble, take breaks, then circle back.

3. “That’s a great question. Let’s find out more together.”

This is a good response to have up your sleeve for complex issues: science, history, race, gender, politics, scary incidents in the news or any time a question catches you off guard.

“We can say, ‘Let’s explore this together, because that question is really a big one,’ ” says Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop. ” ‘Let’s go to the library and let’s look at some books. Let’s search for maybe some films or movies or get recommendations from our teachers or librarians.’ Because not everything has to be in the moment.”

This approach gets you off the hook — so you don’t feel like you’re making something up that you might regret later. “We often feel that, as parents, we always have to have the answer in the moment,” says Betancourt. “And the thing is, we don’t. And that’s OK. We’re still good parents.”

4. Reassure them that they are safe and loved.

Often when kids grapple with a scary or uncertain subject, their questions will have one fundamental motivation: What’s going to happen to me? Will I be safe? Will I be taken care of? Those are the questions you need to answer, even if they aren’t being asked explicitly.

5. Take care of yourself, and don’t be afraid to share your emotions.

We adults need to have our own support system — and time — when we deal with hard things. “Without taking care of ourselves, it’s very difficult to help our children,” says Betancourt.

But that doesn’t mean we grown-ups have to “wall ourselves off in our grief” or other feelings, Truglio says. Her mother died several years ago, and she says she still experiences moments of grief. Recently, she says, she cried in front of her son and didn’t hesitate to explain, “I’m sad because I miss Grandma.”

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