Family Life, Parenting

Touchy Topics: Having Difficult Conversations with Your Children

By Camille Quinn, MSW, LCSW

When it comes to questions about sex and death, how a parent responds is more important than having the answer.

Children’s curiosity can be both refreshing and terrifying for parents; healthy communication with your child is one of the cornerstones to their overall development. A child’s primary way to learn is through asking questions, so being equipped to respond is key.

Questions like, “Where do babies come from? Why does that person look different from us? Why is that person asking for money on the side of the road? What does it mean when someone dies? Is there a heaven? What is sex? What are drugs?” will inevitably be posed by curious children as they are learning to navigate the world around them.

A parent’s reaction and response to these questions can have lasting effects on a child’s development. An anxious response can unintentionally inhibit important conversations, sending a message to children that it’s not okay to talk about certain things, and allowing their minds to wander and draw their own conclusions.

A prepared and confident response can alleviate some of the stress and shock when these questions surface, thus creating a safe and secure environment where children can confide in their parents.

There are a few things parents can do to create a safe and secure environment in which healthy communication between them and their children can be developed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following helpful tips on addressing some of these issues:

Take time to listen: Active listening helps your child know that you hear and understand her and what she is trying to say. An example of active listening might be, “I’m glad you asked that question, it sounds like you are really curious about…”

Let your child know he has done something good: Praising your child in a sincere and honest way encourages good behavior. Additionally, praising your child to someone else in their presence can reinforce good behavior.

Read to your children: Reading to your child from an early age strengthens their vocabulary, knowledge, and understanding of the world. It empowers and teaches them that they can access information. It also creates opportunities for you and your child to spend quality time together.

Make time to laugh and play: Parents often get stuck in the routine of feeding, cleaning, bathing, and making sure children are doing what they are supposed to be doing that they forget to make time for play. The benefits of play include healthy social emotional development and healthy problem solving skills, which are predictors for long-term success.

Avoid distracted parenting: Children are watching you and modeling how you interact with them and others. Being present to them means stopping what you are doing and making the important conversation a priority. It also sets the expectation that they should stop what they are doing. This will help both of you focus on the issue at hand.

The hardest topics are usually the most important ones, but they are also opportunities to share your family values. Staying connected makes you a reliable source when questions come up for your child. These conversations are often open-ended and ongoing. Let your children know that you don’t have all the answers.

You can always take some time to reflect on a question and get back to your children with an answer, which models healthy communication and effective relationship building.


Camille Quinn is a licensed clinical social worker and parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital and a contributor to Nola Family’s “Parenting Corner” column.

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