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Parents' View

When Talking to Children Is Hard

By Elaine Heffner, CSW, Ed.D.


mother talking to kids
Photo © Veer

Recently a father asked me for help with talking to his six-year-old daughter about a surgery she was going to have. He wondered how far in advance to talk about it, how much to tell her, and how to keep her from worrying about it. He, of course, was very worried.

Why is it sometimes hard to know how to talk to our children? To begin with, as with this father, it may be something we ourselves are worried about, and so we fear passing our own concerns to our children. In fact, part of our own upset is the fear of upsetting them. Children don’t always worry in the same way or about the same things we do. But if the issue is something that directly affects the child, we worry that it will be too upsetting. We want to spare our children any pain or unhappiness.

Of course, at times we also may want to protect ourselves from the behavior that may follow when a child learns about something he may not like. Children often express their feelings through difficult behavior, and it may seem that not discussing an issue will prevent this behavior. We may think we are protecting our children when we are really protecting ourselves from behavior with which we don’t want to deal.

The fear that our children will be upset by what we have to discuss can cause us to put off talking about something important or to try to minimize it unrealistically, making something difficult sound easy or more pleasant than it may be in reality. One mother, who was worried about her son’s reaction to her and the father going on vacation, waited until the morning they were to leave to tell him about it. She told him what a great time he would have with his grandparents who were visiting. In fact, he hardly knew his grandparents whom he rarely saw. Mom then had to deal with his angry behavior when they returned. Her attempt to avoid the protest and upset she anticipated ended with behavior that was even harder for her to confront.

At times we find ourselves trying to protect our children from things that are inevitably part of life. Loss is hard to talk about, whether the death of a family member or a pet, a friend who is moving away, even separation from mom when school starts. We hope that our children don’t have to experience these things, but we also fear that if they do, their emotional well-being will be damaged in some way. This concern interferes with the ability to talk to our children not only about real facts but, more importantly, about their feelings and our own.

Life can be painful sometimes. Even the usual developmental steps involve giving up earlier pleasures, which can be difficult to do. The question is not how to avoid them — which we cannot do, anyway — it is how can we as parents help children develop the ability and strength to deal with them.

These days when there is a pill for everything, it’s easy to get the idea that we’re not supposed to feel unhappy or uncomfortable about anything. But the fact that something doesn’t feel good doesn’t make it bad. Confronting difficulty and working our way through it gives us strength and confidence in our own abilities. And by supporting children through this process, parents help their children grow.

Of course children will react – protest what they don’t like or feel unhappy about certain things. Sometimes we block off the expression of these feelings because they make us feel bad. But what actually helps children most is our recognition of these feelings – acknowledging that some things are hard, but that we are here to help them through it. It is the emotional support of parents that makes talking about the hard things so valuable.

Let the following strategies help you when talking to your child about a difficult topic:

  • Talk to children in a real way geared to their developmental level. This means giving general information, not every specific detail.
  • Acknowledge when something is hard, while expressing confidence in a child’s ability to master the situation.
  • Recognize that children express their feelings in behavior, and that they may be unaware of the connection. It helps to make that connection for them in a way that shows you understand.
  • Listen for children’s feelings, which they may not express directly, and create space for them to be talked about. Children are quick to sense when talking about something is not welcome.
  • Share your own feelings when appropriate. It’s okay for children to know you feel sad, as long as it’s clear that it’s not their responsibility to make it better.

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