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How to open the door to tough conversations

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

If I were to ask you if you felt that you could ask your parents awkward or tough questions, what would you say? Things like, “how does sex work?” or “Why do some people love the same gender?” or “What about drugs and alcohol?”

If I asked you if you felt like you could have told your parents about something concerning or scary that happened that also might get you in trouble, what would say? Things like “I got drunk at my friend’s house and I didn’t know if I could call my parents to come to get me.”

I bet your answer would be, “Absolutely not! I did not feel I could go to my parents about those things.” Unfortunately, this is the answer for many of our generation. With a lack of empathy and understanding conveyed by our parents, often we felt unsafe broaching the harder topics. Leaving us to search for information from magazines like Cosmopolitan or our well-meaning friends. This is not to blame our parents. They did their best with what they knew at the time. But times have changed, and I bet you are reading this because you are looking to break that cycle. I bet you are thinking, “I don’t want that! I want my kid to feel comfortable talking to me about anything.”

Use reflecting feeling often

I have a whole blog post on this! Click here to check it out. But in a nutshell, when we reflect feelings, we are conveying to our kids that we understand. Let me be clear – understanding does not mean you agree. It simply means you can see their side of things. Think about it, when you are talking to your friends, are you more likely to share personal information with your friend that empathizes with you, or the one who jumps in with unsolicited advice on how to fix it? Probably the first one, right?! That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for advice and boundaries. It just means that if your kids feel like you understand where they are coming from, they are more likely to feel safe with you and will come to you with the hard stuff.

RESPOND don’t react

This one is the hardest one for parents. After all, we are human too. Too often do we react to our children’s behavior out of fear or through the lens of our own anxieties. For example, when my kiddo threw a massive tantrum at school, as a child therapist, you can only imagine my embarrassment! I mean I am a child therapist! My kids are supposed to be well-behaved and emotionally regulated all the time, right!? And what did I do? I reacted out of embarrassment with frustration and anger toward my kid. Instead, I should have responded with empathy and compassion, stayed calm, discussed better ways to handle the emotions, and started practicing those ways immediately. The key to responding to your kids with intentional parenting strategies is staying emotionally regulated yourself.

Ask open-ended questions

This allows for a conversation instead of a lecture. It conveys that you are interested in your child’s thoughts and opinions. It also allows you to figure out what they already know about the topic. This also allows your kids to practice their critical thinking skills. Instead of yes and no answers, they must form thoughts and put their feelings and opinions into words.

Use age-appropriate language

If you are talking to a toddler, keep the language simple. Use simple feeling words like happy, mad, and sad. If concepts are complex, find synonyms that they would understand. If you’re talking to older kids match their level of vocabulary and ability to understand concepts.

Give age-appropriate information

Similar to keeping language appropriate, sometimes kids don’t need to know the whole story. Stick to answering the question they asked and not more. Don’t give extra information they didn’t ask for. Also, be sure to be factual. For example, if your 6-year-old asks, “Where do babies come from?” after finding out what they already know, you might say, “to make a baby an egg from a girl and a sperm from a boy join together.” Then wait for more questions or thoughts from your child. In this scenario, it would be appropriate to be inclusive in this conversation, touching on what this looks like for gay, trans, or gender-nonconforming parents. But only if the questions are asked. For example, maybe your 6-year-old has a friend with 2 moms. So, your kiddo might ask more questions about that. Either way, keep it short and age-appropriate while sticking to what is actually being asked.

Admit when you don’t know something

It is always okay to say, “I don’t know, let's see what we can learn about it together.” This way you don’t accidentally give false information. This is also a good tactic when you aren’t sure how to answer the question. You can simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that right now, let's talk about it later after I have some time to do some research.”

Ask how they would handle the situation

As your kids get older, ask them what they would do or what they believe about the situation. Invite them to problem solve. Keep in mind that teens will be idealistic in their solutions. They haven’t had enough life experiences to understand everything and give realistic answers. But ask them anyway. Teens also surprise us often!

Again, your goal here is to provide an environment where your kids feel safe to ask the tough questions. Most parents prefer their kids to come to them instead of finding the answer on Google or from friends. Hopefully, these tips help you set up an environment where your kids feel safe to come to you for the information. The biggest tip I can offer is to stay calm! Kids often take cues from their parents’ emotional tone. If you are calm, they will be calm. If you are showing signs of anxiety, they pick that up too. As always, reach out to WellNest if you need help!

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