to Talk to Your Kids About Anything
Tips for talking with kids about tough issues
Raising a child is probably the most
gratifying job any of us will ever have -- and one of the toughest.
In large part, that's because times have changed. We live in an
increasingly complex world that challenges us everyday with a wide
range of disturbing issues that are difficult for children to understand
and for adults to explain.
this booklet can help. It offers practical, concrete tips and techniques
for talking easily and openly with young children ages 8 to 12 about
some very tough issues: sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, drugs and alcohol.
and caregivers may question the appropriateness of talking about
such sensitive topics with young children. Maybe you're one of them.
But consider this: our kids are already hearing about these issues
from TV, movies, magazines and school friends. If we don't talk
with them early and often -- and answer their questions -- they'll
get their facts from someone else. And we'll have missed an important
opportunity to offer our children information that's not only accurate,
but also in sync with our own personal values and moral principles.
sense? We think so. So let's get started.
hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues at increasingly
early ages, often before they are ready to understand all aspects
of these complicated ideas. Additionally, medical research and public
health data tells us that when young children want information,
advice and guidance, they turn to their parents first. Once they
reach the teenage years, they tend to depend more on friends, the
media and other outsiders for their information. As a parent, you
have a wonderful opportunity to talk with your child about these
issues first, before anyone else can confuse your child with incorrect
information or explanations that lack the sense of values you want
to instill. We need to take advantage of this "window of opportunity"
with young children and talk with them earlier and more often, particularly
about tough issues like sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, alcohol and drugs.
Initiate Conversations With Your Child
we want our children to feel comfortable enough to come to us with
any questions and concerns -- and thus give us the opportunity to
begin conversations -- this doesn't always occur. That's why it's
perfectly okay -- at times even necessary -- to begin the discussions
ourselves. TV and other media are great tools for this. Say, for
instance, that you and your 12-year-old are watching TV together
and the program's plot includes a teenage pregnancy. After the show
is over, ask your child what she thought of the program. Did she
agree with how the teenagers behaved? Just one or two questions
could help start a valuable discussion that comes from everyday
circumstances and events.
when speaking with your child, be sure to use words she can understand.
Trying to explain AIDS to a 6-year-old with words like "transmission"
and "transfusion" may not be as helpful as using simpler
language. The best technique: use simple, short words and straightforward
have more than one child -- and your kids are widely spaced -- try
to speak with them separately, even about the same subject. The
reason? Children of varied ages are usually at different developmental
levels, which means that they need different information, have different
sensitivities and require a different vocabulary. What's more, older
children will often dominate the discussion, which may prevent the
younger ones from speaking up.
...Even about Sex and Relationships
feel uncomfortable talking about such sensitive subjects -- particularly
sex and relationships -- with your young child, you're not alone.
Many parents feel awkward and uneasy, especially if they are anxious
about the subject. But, for your kid's sake, try to overcome your
nervousness and bring up the issue with your child. After all, our
children are hearing about it both through the media and on the
playground, and that information may not include the values that
we want our kids to have.
Create an Open Environment
children want their parents to discuss difficult subjects with them.
However, our kids will look to us for answers only if they feel
we will be open to their questions. It's up to us to create the
kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questions --
on any subject -- freely and without fear of consequence.
you create such an atmosphere? By being encouraging, supportive
and positive. For example, if your child asks, "How many people
have AIDS?" try not to answer with, "I don't know. Please
just finish your lunch." No matter how busy you are respond
with something like, "That's an interesting question, but I'm
not sure. Let's go look it up." (FYI: Don't worry that if your
children learn that you don't know everything, they won't look up
to you. That's simply not true. Kids accept, "I don't know,"
and "let's go find out," and they are better responses
than any inaccurate or misleading answers you may be tempted to
point: You don't need to answer all of your children's questions
immediately. If your 10-year-old asks, "Mom, what's a condom?"
while you're negotiating a tricky turn in rush-hour traffic, it's
perfectly okay for you to say something like, "That's an important
question. But with all this traffic, I can't explain right now.
Let's talk later, after dinner." And make sure you do.
Communicate your values
As a parent,
you have a wonderful opportunity to be the first person to talk
with your child about tough issues like drugs and violence before
anyone else can confuse him with "just-the-facts" explanations
that lack the sense of values and moral principles you want to instill.
Likewise, when talking with your child about sex, remember to talk
about more than "the birds and the bees," and communicate
your values. Remember: research shows that children want and need
moral guidance from their moms and dads, so don't hesitate to make
your beliefs clear.
Listen to Your Child
times do we listen to our children while folding clothes, preparing
for the next day's meeting, or pushing a shopping cart through the
supermarket? While that's understandable, it's important to find
time to give kids our undivided attention. Listening carefully to
our children builds self-esteem by letting our youngsters know that
they're important to us and can lead to valuable discussions about
a wide variety of sensitive issues.
carefully also helps us better understand what our children really
want to know as well as what they already understand. And it keeps
us from talking above our youngsters' heads and confusing them even
further. For example, suppose your child asks you what crack is.
Before you answer, ask him what he thinks it is. If he says, "I
think it's something you eat that makes you act funny," then
you have a sense of his level of understanding and can adjust your
explanations to fit.
to our children and taking their feelings into account also helps
us understand when they've had enough. Suppose you're answering
your 9-year-old's questions about AIDS. If, after a while, he says,
"I want to go out and play," stop the talk and re-introduce
the subject at another time.
Try to be Honest
your children's age, they deserve honest answers and explanations.
It's what strengthens our children's ability to trust. Also, when
we don't provide a straightforward answer, kids make up their own
fantasy explanations, which can be more frightening than any real,
honest response we can offer.
we may not want or need to share all the details of a particular
situation or issue with our child, try not to leave any big gaps
either. When we do, children tend to fill in the blanks themselves,
which can generate a good deal of confusion and concern.
it can feel like forever before a youngster gets his story out.
As adults, we're tempted to finish the child's sentence for him,
filling in words and phrases in an effort to hear the point sooner.
Try to resist this impulse. By listening patiently, we allow our
children to think at their own pace and we are letting them know
that they are worthy of our time.
Use Everyday Opportunities to Talk
to try to talk with your kids about tough issues often, but there
isn't always time in the day to sit down for a long talk. Also,
kids tend to resist formal discussions about today's toughest issues,
often categorizing them as just another lecture from mom and dad.
But if we use "talk opportunities," moments that arise
in everyday life, as occasions for discussion, our children will
be a lot less likely to tune us out. For instance, a newspaper item
about a child expelled from school for carrying a gun to class can
help you start a discussion on guns and violence. A public service
TV commercial can give you an opportunity to talk about AIDS.
Talk About it Again. And Again.
most young children can only take in small bits of information at
any one time, they won't learn all they need to know about a particular
topic from a single discussion. That's why it's important to let
a little time pass, then ask the child to tell you what she remembers
about your conversation. This will help you correct any misconceptions
and fill in missing facts.
in an effort to absorb all they want to know, children often ask
questions again and again over time -- which can test any parent's
nerves. But such repetition is perfectly normal, so be prepared
and tolerant. Don't be afraid to initiate discussions repeatedly,
either. Patience and persistence will serve you and your child well.