Child & Teen

How to Talk to Kids About Difficult Topics

how to talk to kids about difficult topics

By Sandra Dougherty, LMSW

Talking to children about subjects such as conflict and violence can feel daunting. Learn some simple, easy-to-use strategies for engaging in these conversations with courage and confidence.

Be Open

Let your child know that they can ask any question, or talk about any topic. By validating and normalizing their curiosity, you create a safe place for them to wonder and learn. For example, “It sounds like this is important to you. Let’s explore it together!” or “It was brave of you to ask me about this!” Don’t know what to say? Be a mirror! Simply repeat back to them a summary of what they shared with you. This gives them an opportunity to affirm or amend your understanding of what they are feeling.

Be Honest

It’s normal for adults to want to protect kids from fear and pain. We may even be experiencing our own feelings of fear about telling our children what’s going on. But fear is often rooted in the unknown. For example, if local schools are closed due to a safety issue, don’t tell your child it was because the power was out. Doing so may cause confusion when your child hears differently from peers and teachers at school the next day, and they may be less likely to turn to you in the future. Being honest sends kids the message that you are a trustworthy source of information, and that you believe they are capable of handling tough stuff. 

Be Age-Appropriate

What we tell our children depends on age and development. What you share with a child in grade school will look and sound different than what you tell a teenager. For a younger child, it helps to keep things fact-oriented and simple. An example may be, “Your school is closed today because there is a safety concern in our area. After our community helpers resolve it, the school will open again”. For teens, you may choose to go into greater detail. For example, “An unsafe person has a gun and is in our area. School leaders and other community first responders are choosing to close schools today so that every resource can be utilized to find them. Once they have been found, it will be safe to go back to school”. If there is a resolution to an issue like this, share it with them to offer a sense of closure and return to safety. No matter what their age, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. And don’t forget to share your own – doing so shows them how to do it! 

Nurture a Sense of Agency

Agency refers to feeling grounded and having a sense of control and impact on our world. This may include exploring what you and your child can do to help. This can range from a local gesture (such as hosting a food drive for a local pantry or volunteering in your community) to an international one (such as contributing to a relief fund or making thoughtful cards to send to children and families in need). 

Each time you sit with a child you love in a space of uncertainty or pain, you demonstrate the empathy you wish to nurture in them. Talking about the tough stuff empowers future generations through knowledge, discovery, and meaningful participation in the world around them.