Difficult conversations with pre-teens and teenagers: what are they?
Difficult conversations cover any topic that might be embarrassing, upsetting or controversial for either you or your child. It could also be something that might cause an argument or a conflict between the two of you.
Sex, sexual orientation, masturbation, alcohol or other drugs, academic difficulties, self-harm, secrets, work and money are all topics that families can find difficult to talk about.
If you’re prepared, it can help you feel more confident and comfortable to tackle difficult conversations.
Preparing for difficult conversations with pre-teens and teenagers
There are no scripts for difficult conversations and tricky topics.
But it’s a good idea to think about these topics before your child asks. If you work out a few key points about sex, alcohol, parties and so on beforehand – and even practise them – you’ll be ready when your child asks a tricky question about sex while you’re driving!
And when you’ve had a chance to think about these topics, it’s also a good idea to raise them before your child asks, so your child knows they can talk to you. For example, early conversations about things like sexting can help your child stay safe.
Managing difficult conversations with pre-teens and teenagers
- Try to stay calm. Be honest if you’re shocked by the topic, but reassure your child that you do want to discuss the issue. This can help your child feel they can talk to you about anything.
- Make sure the first thing you say to your child is something that lets them know you’re happy that they want to talk to you. For example, ‘I’m so happy that you trust me to help you with this’ or ‘Thank you for coming to me about this’.
- Listen to your child. This means giving your child a chance to talk through what’s going on, without you trying to fix the situation. Often, teenagers aren’t expecting you to fix things – they just want you to listen.
- Avoid being critical or judgmental, or getting emotional. If you need to let off steam, choose another adult to talk to when your child isn’t around.
- If you need a bit of time to calm down or gather your thoughts before you talk, set a time to talk later. Make sure it’s soon – don’t wait until the next day. Your child might go ahead without your input in the meantime.
- If your child has some specific issues they want your help with and you’re not sure how to advise them, say so. Offer to work with your child to find out what they need to know – for example, about contraception, sexuality, alcohol and so on.
- If your child wants your help with a tricky situation, try guiding your child through a problem-solving approach. This can help your child learn to find solutions or make decisions themselves. You could offer to talk with your child after they put the solution or decision into action.
- If your child wants your opinion, let your child know how you see the situation rather than telling them what to do. For example, ‘I would prefer it if you don’t have sex until you’re older. But if you’re going to, let’s talk about making sure it’s safe’.
Your child is becoming an independent young person with their own beliefs, values and opinions. There’ll be times when you and your child have different opinions about tricky topics. That’s OK. This gives you both the chance to hear and respect new perspectives.
When pre-teens and teenagers won’t have difficult conversations
It’s common for teenagers to avoid talking about embarrassing or upsetting topics, especially if you raise them first. Sometimes you might not even realise a topic is upsetting or embarrassing until you raise it.
If your child doesn’t want to have difficult conversations with you, you could try the following:
- Try to set aside some time each day to talk with your child. Ask your child open-ended questions, and let them know that if they do want to talk, you’re happy to listen. This will help you stay connected with your child and might help them feel more comfortable to come to you in future.
- Keep up to date with your child’s interests. This gives you things to talk about and shows that you’re interested in your child’s wellbeing.
- Try communicating in a different way. Teenagers often like to communicate through chat and text messages. Your child might find it easier to talk about tricky topics this way.
- If your child won’t talk to you, suggest other adults they could talk to, like a relative, teacher, counsellor or neighbour. But tell your child that you’re happy to listen any time they want to talk to you.
Benefits of difficult conversations
Tackling difficult conversations together with your child is a sign that you have a healthy relationship.
It helps to keep your relationship with your child close and trusting. If you’re warm, accepting, non-judgmental and uncritical, and also open to negotiating and setting limits, your child is likely to feel more connected to you. Your child is also more likely to discuss issues with you in the future.
And if you know what’s going on in your child’s life, you’re better placed to help them manage difficult situations. Discussing tricky topics with you gives your child the opportunity to explore their choices and work out whether they’re the right ones for them.
Try not to avoid difficult conversations with your child. If you do, your child might end up making choices that have negative consequences. For example, a sexually active teenager who doesn’t ask for advice about contraception might end up with an unplanned pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection.
Tricky topics to discuss with pre-teens & teenagers
Alcohol and other drugs
Teenage alcohol and other drug use: how to help
Media and social media
- Disaster news and distressing news events: supporting children 6-11 years
- Disaster news and distressing news events: supporting teenagers
- Social media benefits and risks: children and teenagers
- Mental health in pre-teens and teenagers
- Self-harm and teenagers
- Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts: teenagers
Relationships, sex and sexuality
- Teenage relationships: romance and intimacy
- Getting and giving sexual consent: talking with teenagers
- Sexuality: pre-teens and teenagers
- Sexting: early conversations with children 6-11 years
- Sexting: talking with teenagers
- Pornography: talking about it with children 9-11 years
- Pornography: talking about it with teenagers 12-18 years
School and social life