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How to Have Difficult Conversations with Children

mother having talk with daughter

As parents, we want to protect our children from any pain. For this reason, it can be very difficult to know what to say when kids start asking questions about sensitive topics occurring in the world around them. Dr. Ellen Wartella and Dr. Barbara Gablehouse, members of our Board of Education, provide their insight on how to have difficult conversations with children. 

In times of sorrow and uncertainty, it can be uncomfortable to help our children navigate their feelings and understanding of violence in the world. However, as hard as it is, it’s important to give little ones the space to explore these emotions and talk through what is happening.

When it comes to having difficult conversations with little ones, each family has its own method. 




Begin the Discussion Where Your Child Directs It 👪

If your child asks you a question about a difficult topic, you can start by calmly asking them to explain what they already know. Try saying, “That’s an interesting question you’re asking. Tell me what you have heard.” 

Give your child space to explain what they know and what they think about the issue. Try to explain complex issues in a factual manner. For example, overheard clips on the media can be explained as “grown-ups having a very big fight.” A simple statement like that might be enough, or your child may have additional questions. 

Young children might not be able to grasp the depth of such complex situations, but they do understand the concept of disagreeing and even fighting. You can also make comparisons to concepts they already know and understand, like playground conflicts.

You can follow up your explanation with, “Does that answer what you wanted to know?” It’s not necessary to fabricate what is happening in the world, but it’s helpful to be cautious with your words to keep them factual and simple. 

Also, remind your children that you are always there to listen to and answer their questions to the best of your ability. 


Acknowledge All Feelings ❤️

It’s a normal reaction to want to make everything okay for your child. But, it’s also appropriate to allow space for feelings of grief, fear, pain, worry, curiosity, etc.  

Kids are naturally curious and will want to know why they, or other family members and friends, are feeling sad or worried. It’s helpful to share your emotions as you work through them because it supports children in learning about emotional intelligence. Dr. Wartella suggests being honest with your feelings while reassuring children that these types of intense emotions don’t last forever. 

You can use emotion charts to help children label what they’re feeling. It can be difficult for anyone to acknowledge and process big feelings, so emotion charts are helpful tools for identifying feelings across the spectrum. This is a routine that can be practiced daily. Have your children point to the emotion they’re feeling, talk about it, and then do the same with your own emotions. 


Ensure Your Child that They’re Safe with You 🫂

Children often mimic the behaviors and emotions of their parents. Parents serve as models for children in how they deal with stressful situations and conflicts. Ensure your little ones that you will do everything in your power to protect them and keep them safe. 

Sometimes, like in the case of wildfires, you can’t guarantee that there isn’t a risk to your home. In these situations, Dr. Gablehouse suggests that it’s important to give children a sense of control. For example, “you could have discussions about the things that would be the most important to save in the event of an emergency.”

Have them pick out a favorite toy and create an evacuation plan together. Control over some part of the emergency reduces the stress that children may be feeling. 

Dr. Wartella also recommends holding your child as you discuss situations out of your control, this helps them feel physically safe. When children see their parents modeling calm behavior and safety, they will internalize that sense of security. 


father having difficult talk with son

Talking about Death and Dying with Young Children 🌳

The passing of loved ones is a situation we all must face at some point during our lifetimes. Our grandparents pass away and so do our beloved pets, these situations are often a child’s first experience with death. 

Dr. Gablehouse explains that it’s appropriate to acknowledge the sadness and pain felt at the death of a loved one and to let your children see these emotions. She suggests explaining death by explaining the cycle of life. 

Talk to your little ones about the life cycle of plants and trees: they sprout in the spring, their leaves get bigger in the summer, they change color in the fall, and eventually, their leaves fall off of the branch in the winter. Likewise, babies are born, they grow up, they become adults, and eventually, the cycle comes to an end. 

Try to keep your tone of voice light while explaining the cycle of life so as not to add additional worry. 

Unfortunately, tragedies happen and this can make the cycle of life more complicated for children to understand and cope with. It’s helpful to share your emotions as you work through them because it supports children in acknowledging and processing their own feelings. You can help children deal with unexpected tragedies by working together to find ways to honor and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed.

Dr. Wartella suggests being honest with your feelings while reassuring children that these types of emotions don’t last forever. 


Teach Resilience 💪🏽

Life is unpredictable. We deal with community violence, pandemics, wars, human rights, climate change, and many other challenges. Although we can’t always protect our children from forces out of our control, we can teach them skills to deal with difficult situations. These resiliency skills include:

  • Trusting your instincts
  • Coping and Control
  • Personal drive to accomplish tasks
  • Positive thinking habits 
  • Social communication

“Kids can actually handle a lot more than we give them credit for,” says Dr. Gablehouse. “Your own ability to bounce back from challenging and stressful situations is observed by your children.”

She also quotes, “Prepare your child for the path; not the path for the child.” When children have been prepared with tools for dealing with life’s ups and downs, they will be able to handle almost everything along the way. 


Join the Conversation 💬

Are there any books, songs, or activities that your family uses when having difficult conversations with your child? Let us know by tagging us on social media

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