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Talking with Kids About Tough Issues

May 09, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

This article is a followup to our previous one, “Talking With Kids About Alcohol and Drugs.” The information is from a brochure published by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Raising a child is probably the most gratifying job any of us will ever have -- and one of the toughest, in large part because times have changed. We live in a complex and increasingly media-driven world that challenges us everyday with disturbing issues that are difficult for children to understand and for adults to explain 

It’s important that parents be able to talk easily and openly with young children ages 8 to 12 about tough issues: sex, violence, and drugs and alcohol.

Some of you may question the appropriateness of talking about such sensitive topics with your pre-adolescent children. However, consider that our kids are hearing about these issues from TV, movies, social media, and school friends. If you don't talk with them early and often -- and answer their questions -- they will get their facts from someone else. And, you will have missed an opportunity to offer them information that is not only accurate, but also in sync with your personal values and moral principles.

Start Early: Kids are hearing about, and may be forced to cope with, tough issues at increasingly early ages, often before they are ready to understand many aspects of these complicated ideas. Importantly, when young children want information, advice and guidance, they turn to their parents first. As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to talk with your children about these issues first, before anyone else can confuse them with incorrect information.

Initiate Conversations With Your Child: While 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. It is okay and, at times necessary, to begin the discussion ourselves. TV and other media are great tools for this. For instance, you and your 12-year-old are watching TV 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.

Also, when speaking with your child, be sure to use words she can understand. Trying to explain AIDS to an 8-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 explanations.

Sex and Relationships and Drugs and Alcohol: If you feel uncomfortable talking about these “sensitive subjects” -- particularly sex and relationships -- with your young child, you are not alone. Many parents feel awkward and uneasy, especially if they are anxious about the subject. But, for your child’s sake, try to overcome your concerns. You may be surprised what your children are hearing about through the media and on the playground, and that information may not include the values that you want your kids to have.

Create an Open Environment: Children want their parents to discuss difficult subjects with them. However, your kids will look to you for answers only if they feel you will be open to their questions. It's up to you to create the kind of atmosphere in which your children can ask any questions -- on any subject -- freely and without fear of consequence.

How do you create such an atmosphere? By being encouraging, supportive and positive. For example, if your child asks a difficult question 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 after lunch."

Also, you don't need to answer all of your children's questions immediately. If your 10-year-old asks, "Dad, what's a condom?" while you're negotiating a tricky turn in rush-hour traffic, it's okay for you to say, "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. Children want guidance from their parents, so don't hesitate to make your beliefs clear.

Listen to Your Child: How often do you listen to your children while folding clothes, preparing for a meeting, or pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket? While that's understandable, it's important to find time to give your kids your undivided attention. Listening carefully to your children builds self-esteem by letting them know that they are important to us.

Listening carefully also will help you better understand what your children really want to know as well as what they already understand. And it keeps you from talking above their level of understanding. 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.

Try to be Honest: Whatever your children's age, they deserve honest answers and explanations; it strengthens their ability to trust. While 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.

Be Patient: Often 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: Although it's important to talk about tough issues, there isn't always time in the day to sit down for a talk. Kids also tend to resist formal discussions, often categorizing them as just another lecture from mom and dad. But if you use “teachable” moments that come up during the course of the day, as occasions for discussion, your children will be a lot less likely to tune you 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 and a public service announcement can give you an opportunity to talk about drug abuse.

Talk About it Again, and Again: Since 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.


One of the best resources for age-appropriate information is KidsHealth.org. The site is divided into sections for parents, teens, and kids and provides access to information that you can share with your children. 

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