How to Handle Difficult Conversations with Little Ones
There will always be discussions with our children that we’d rather not have.
“Mummy, how does the baby come out?” This is one question I couldn’t continue avoiding after its fifth appearance. I simply didn’t have it in me to lie anymore - my daughter is wise enough to know that a belly button can’t channel a human being into the world. But was she ready to grasp the real ordeal?
I recall being a child with the absence of important discussions. While my parents and family members embraced and openly discussed the missing pieces of our family (my brother, grandfather, and great grandfather) with both grief and joy, it was notable that other extended family members and friends avoided the subject entirely, as well as the special events that surrounded lost loved ones. Some made it seem as though my brother had never existed. And that, to a child, is not only alarming and confusing, it’s vividly traumatic.
Some conversations are difficult because they hurt the other person, are confronting, or because we don’t have all the answers. "What happens at the exact moment when we die, Mummy?"
And some are just plain awkward. "But how did the seed for the baby get inside your belly in the first place?"
My mission in life is to facilitate difficult conversations through the art of storytelling.
Having tricky conversations is and will be a part of our children's lives, now and throughout their adolescence and adulthood. We know that when we face the uncomfortable, they feel closer to us, and they can come to us in ANY challenging scenario - the holy grail of parenting.
With that, in listed seven ways to have those difficult discussions that we'd rather disregard and answer with a lie. We know that both avenues can lead to inconsistency, untrustworthiness, confusion, and disengagement. They can also invite children to invent their own stories, or ask someone who is less informed than we are.
1. Read stories. Reading specialised books that focus on a topic we'd rather not discuss is the easiest way to ignite conversations and ask questions that are broad rather than focused on the child and their own troubling situation. This allows them to inadvertently explore their own solutions, as well as answer those colossal life questions.
2. Invite. Instead of attempting to answer every question, whether big or small, invite your child to think expansively. You might ask, "What do you think?" and explore the answers together. Ask the child if they have any questions about what happened. They will! "When is Grandpa coming back? Why did his heart stop? Are you going to die too? Will I die? What happens when you die? Does it hurt?" Be prepared for the entourage of queries, and know that you don't have to have all the answers. Explain that you're human too and you'd love to figure out the answers together. You're also allowed to say, "That's a good question! I'll come back to you on that one."
3. Move. If eye contact feels imposing in these scenarios, or if you have an older child who reacts awkwardly, it's a good idea to have these chats whilst driving in the car, playing a card game, walking on the beach, or playing sports. This way, the conversation can flow without the intensity that can often be associated with, "Let's have a chat." That said, avoid having the conversation as you're rushing out the door. You want to give it the space and time it deserves.
4. Simplify. With small children, keep the details brief. If someone has passed away, explain what happened in a factual and loving way, and ask them how they feel.
5. Listen. Rather than bandaging over their worries, try listening. I had become so used to fixing all my daughter's problems, I rarely gave her a chance to come up with her own solutions and answers, leaving her feeling rather powerless. It's common (and innate!) to want to immediately mend your child's every concern. In doing this, we easily miss what it is they're trying to tell us.
6. Get outside. I always find that my own worries, and my child's, are lifted when I'm in nature. You could ask them to place their hand on a tree and see how it feels. When we connect with nature in this way, we realise we are not the centre of the earth, only part of it. It's a very grounding, calming, thought-provoking, and humbling feeling.
7. Love. Always reassure your child that they are safe and loved at the beginning of the conversation and at the end. My friend calls this a dirt sandwich.
When the dirt sandwich is finished, revisit the subject a few days later, so they know that there are no taboo topics with you. Keep the follow up brief, as you may be met with resistance. The purpose is, they know you're there for them, no matter what ridiculous or challenging moment comes their way.
If you loved this article, please share it with a friend. It's not easy being a parent and we need to support one another. My friends have been my emotional rocks when it comes to navigating this adventure.
To learn more about building resilience in our kids and enhancing their internal problem solving tools, you can read Lucy Loses a Tooth with them. This story has been loved by so many children and families already, so I know you'll love it too.