Why it’s good to talk about tough topics with children

Divorce, illness, death, sex, natural disasters – they’re all part of life. Talking about tough topics is one way you can help your child deal with life’s difficulties.

If you encourage open communication about tough topics, your child learns that she can always talk to you. She’ll understand that you’ll be there to listen if something is worrying her. This is a great foundation for communication in the teenage years.

Also, talking about tough topics strengthens your child’s ability to think, solve problems and communicate. It also helps to build your child’s resilience.

And talking about tough topics with your child gives you a chance to explain values and beliefs that are important to your family.

Talking about tough topics can be important for children’s wellbeing. When children have the chance to express and work through feelings, it can help them to cope with stress.

Talking about tough topics at different ages

The way you handle tough topics will depend on your child’s age and how he makes sense of the world.

Toddlers and preschoolers
Toddlers and preschoolers understand the differences between feeling happy, sad, afraid or angry. But they need lots of reassurance to understand new and more complex feelings. And they also think in very concrete ways and are still learning how concepts fit together.

This means that when you talk about tough topics with toddlers and preschoolers, it’s good to focus on feelings that they understand and explain things in simple language. For example:

  • ‘Grandma has died and we won’t see her anymore. I’m very sad.’
  • ‘We love you. But we think the family will be happier if Dad and I live in different houses.’
  • ‘Babies grow in a place inside their mummies called the uterus’.
  • ‘I was really scared too when that car crashed into us, but we’re safe now.’

School-age children
At this age, children have more emotional maturity and understand more complex emotions – but new emotions are still overwhelming for them sometimes. Their brains are developing rapidly, and they can absorb new information quickly. Their worlds have expanded too, and they might come across more tough topics through the media or conversations with other children at school.

This means that when you talk about tough topics with your school-age child, you can talk about more complex emotions and go into more detail. For example:

  • ‘Death means not living anymore, like the flowers die so they don’t grow anymore. Or the dog died so he doesn’t eat and play anymore. All living things die some time.’
  • ‘We both love you. But Dad and I don’t want to be married to each other anymore. Dad and I will live in different houses, but we’ll both look after you.’
  • ‘To make a baby, a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman join together.’
  • ‘I know it was scary when we had to leave home because of the fire. But remember how we followed our bushfire plan? And then lots of people helped us know what to do next.’

It’s always good to be aware of what your child is seeing or talking about at child care, preschool or school, as well as what she might be seeing in the media. This can give you the chance to raise tough topics with your child before she asks and guide her through them.

Planning for tough conversations

It’s a good idea to think about tough topics before your child asks. This way you’ll be prepared when a tough topic comes up.

Here are some tips to help you plan for difficult conversations:

  • Tell your child sad or scary news yourself if you can, or ask someone who knows your child well to talk to your child. Tell your child as soon as you can after the event.
  • If there’s time to plan ahead, choose a time when you’re both relaxed. If you can, choose a private and comfortable place to talk.
  • Be honest. For example, ‘Yes, Dad is going to live with Sally now. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you any more’.
  • Let your child know that he can ask you questions.
  • Really listen to your child after you’ve started the conversation. Make eye contact and get down to your child’s level. You might find it useful to say her feelings back to her to check that you understand what she’s saying.
  • Use a past event to help your child understand a more recent one. For example, if you’re talking about a recent bushfire, you could tell your child what happened after the Black Friday bushfires. You could reassure him by focusing on how people coped and worked together to rebuild.
  • Be ready to comfort your child with lots of cuddles if you need to.
  • Come back to the tough topic in a week if your child doesn’t raise it with you. Your child needs time to process what you’ve been talking about, but she might also need encouragement to talk about it again.

Storybooks can often be good conversation starters for kids of all ages. Try your local library or search online for ideas.

Topics you have trouble with

There might be things you find really difficult to talk about. This could be because of your own background or your cultural and religious values. Or it could be because the tough topic affects you also, like divorce. If this sounds like you, you could consider talking to your partner or a friend about the issues that are difficult for you.

It’s OK to have feelings and to let your child know what they are. But if you show too much distress, it might not be good for your child. Your child might copy your reaction or find it upsetting.

If you get too distressed when talking or thinking about tough topics, talk to your GP or health professional. For example, if you’ve been through a traumatic event, you might find that talking about similar topics upsets you. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114 or a parenting hotline.

It’s important to talk about tough topics. If your child doesn’t understand the facts in a way that he can make sense of, he might imagine things that are far worse than the truth.