By: Dr. Shweta Verma* & Anushka Gupta**
Many parents and teachers find it hard to discuss important topics with their children, such as death, abuse, menstruation, sex, and so on. One of the key reasons for this is that they may not know what to say when their children ask them questions about these themes. There is a hesitation that is often driven by the following doubts:
- Do I have enough knowledge on this issue?
- What are the appropriate words to say something about this? What if I say something wrong?
- Is the child old enough to understand this?
- Is the child ready to engage with this topic?
- Will the child listen to what I have to say?
- Is this kind of conversation appropriate for the child?
- Am I the best person to talk about this? Or someone else should?
These are the kind of thoughts parents and teachers have in their minds while telling kids about difficult topics. While children, on the other hand, need to learn these things from a reliable source rather than acquiring half-knowledge from someone else or from non-credible online sources. Quality of information is extremely crucial, especially when it comes to complex and challenging topics.
Ways to overcome your doubts and have necessary but difficult conversations
The first rule: Don’t run from the conversation
Many parents and teachers avoid having difficult conversations with their children. Children come to them with inquiries, and they may not know how to respond or purposefully avoid certain issues. One may jump to say:
“This is not important for you to know right now.”
“Talk to XYZ. They would know more.”
“Right now, let’s talk about ABC instead of this.”
It’s not fair to avoid or dismiss their questions because children continue to be inquisitive. If you don’t respond, they’ll try to figure out the answers on their own. This may result in inaccurate information.
How to Start
If you’re having trouble starting a discussion at random or don’t know what to say or how to say it, we recommend reading them stories about these topics to trigger some questions in their heads. Especially for young ones, the simplest approach to communicate with children about particular situations and topics is through stories. Stories can offer kids a sense of what is going on in these situations. For example, reading children a story in which a particular character is not born into the family but joins it later – can normalize the fact that families are of different kinds and adoption is just one of the ways of building families. Similarly, using stories where characters die can help them realize that death is common; and one may have diverse emotions around it depending on one’s relationship with the person who dies.
Listen to children carefully
It is critical to pay attention to what children are saying. Kids are generally more detail-oriented than adults, therefore they will pick out certain aspects that you may have overlooked. Also, when discussing such things, it is preferable to follow their lead, as this will assist you in moving forward with the topic. It is useful to gather information by asking open and exploratory questions rather than jumping to offer solutions and opinions right away.
For example, ask with an open mind: ‘Can you tell me more about this?’ ‘Can you help me understand by sharing an example?’ ‘What information have you already gathered about this?’
Don’t ambush children. Find time together for the topics
If a child asked you a question or if you think that it is important to bring up a topic that you have on your mind, create time for this conversation with the child. Don’t ambush them when you are free or whenever they are in front of you. Inform the child that you want to talk to them about something and seek their time and permission for this. Similarly, you can also inform the child that you are available for conversations and if they have something important to discuss, they can let you know.
Don’t push children. Be patient. Give Time.
When talking about something serious, it’s critical to be patient with the youngsters. If you try to impose your ways strongly, they may misinterpret them or simply exit the conversation. They may believe that they are not heard or that their thoughts are not valued. Hence, it is best to be specific and focus on the responses to the questions they have.
Sometimes kids will ask the same question repeatedly, or they will repeat the same question in a different way. If you feel they are not comprehending what you are saying to them, be patient and give them the answer again. If you feel they are not understanding what you are giving them, try to give them examples from the narrative or from their own life.
If you think a young child isn’t paying attention to the topic you want them to grasp, read them the same tale again or choose a different story that deals with the same issue/theme.
What to do when you don’t know the answer
There are instances when children ask unexpected questions or ask questions about which you don’t have an answer or don’t know how to respond. Don’t lie to them. You can simply say “I’ll get back to you with that” or “I’ll look into this and inform you then.” It gives kids the sense that it’s okay if you don’t know everything and that you don’t have to know everything.
In several areas, such as sexuality, parental guidance is critical to guiding children in the proper direction. Talking frankly about things will also encourage your youngster to open up to you. They will feel more comfortable discussing their secrets, thoughts, and concerns with you in the future. Having these types of conversations with your children also helps to foster a positive bond between you and your children.
Resources for Children: 1-minute videos on Gender & Sexuality
What if the question is about your personal life?
Children can often be curious to know about the lives of parents, teachers, and other role models. As children often get asked questions about their own personal lives, they may start to believe that it is okay to ask personal questions from others too. We recommend three things, to begin with.
One, as the child begins to learn the norms of relationships and empathy, help them understand how people have the right to own space and they should inform people they trust when it comes to personal matters.
Second, help children understand that while you trust them and are happy to share about your life with them, there are certain things that you can talk about once you feel more ready.
Third, if you think you can share a part of the information that the child is seeking, then do so in a manner that is simple but honest.
For example, a mother planning to leave a violent relationship may inform her child: “I have to decide to stay at a place where I feel safe and cared for. It is important for everyone to do so. Hence, you and I will be soon shifting to a different place. It will be a change for you but I will be with you. Ask openly if you have any questions. If I have an answer for it, I will let you know”
How we feel about a topic often influences how we talk about them. It is important to approach questions and topics with an open mind while keeping the needs of the child at the center. Your responses give several messages to children about the topic. Do make sure that children feel heard, respected, and comfortable in the conversation. If a conversation makes them uncomfortable, ask exploratory questions to respond to discomfort. This is how you would help nurture empathy, curiosity, and respect for diversity in society.
About Ginny’s Planet:
Ginny’s Planet is a social enterprise Co-founded by Dr. Shweta Verma in 2019. The brand runs on the core value of helping our teachers and parents to teach their children to become independent, smart, and better leaders by equipping them with a deep understanding of empathy, diversity, disability, and inclusion. Dr. Shweta and the team design events, workshops, and products to help guardians & schools to develop kids’ mindsets and evolve as adaptive and flexible human beings. They work with schools to organize workshops for children and teachers.
*Dr. Shweta Verma is a social work professional and a social entrepreneur. She has two decades of experience in the field of mental health and disability rights. She simplifies and deepens understanding of children & grownups on empathy, diversity, and inclusion.
**Anushka Gupta is Intern- Content Design at Ginny’s Planet. Student of B.Des in UPES, Dehradun. She has participated in empathy and diversity workshops on Ginny’s Planet.