How to Have Hard Conversations with Kids: Science-Backed Guide for Parents

There’s no magical way to make talking to your kids about challenging topics easy, but we’ve gathered the top research-based strategies to help you meet these important learning moments head on 💪! 

How to Have Hard Conversations with Kids: Science-Backed Guide for Parents

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You might be tempted by age-old sayings like “ignorance is bliss” when deciding whether to discuss a tough topic with your child. Your instinct is to protect, and that’s good! 

Unfortunately, serious topics like death or divorce are a part of life, and one of the most important ways you can help a child is by preparing them to meet those challenging moments when they inevitably come. 

In fact, you are increasing your child’s capacity for happiness by having these conversations because you are helping them develop their social-emotional toolkit 🧰. 

In other words, the adults in a child's life should proactively talk about difficult issues  so the child can build coping and resilience techniques that will help them navigate challenging times. 

There’s no magical way to make talking to your kids about challenging topics easy, but we’ve  gathered the top research-based strategies to help you meet these important learning moments head on 💪!  You can also follow those tips on our instagram here!

The Wide Range of Tough Topics 

Tough topics range in scope, gravity, and relevance to each individual child. We’ve broken the tough topics down into three buckets: 

Type 1: Close to Home Issues

Some issues will hit “close to home” and will (at least temporarily) affect your child on a regular basis. These issues might include (but, of course, are not limited to): 

Type 2: Community Issues

Related to the above topics, your child might feel distress when they learn that people they know in their community are suffering from these issues. These situations might include

  • Friend’s parents’ divorce
  • Non-relative’s illness
  • Classmate or friend suffering from grief

Type 3: Global Issues 

Although more removed from your child’s daily life, larger-scale issues might also distress your child, even if they do not impact their lives directly. From overhearing the news to classmate chatter in the lunch line, your child could learn about major global issues in countless ways.

These issues might include: 

  • War and global conflicts 
  • School shootings
  • Racism & other forms of discrimination
  • Pandemics & other large-scale illnesses

 It’s important to talk about these topics with your child to make sure they have accurate facts (which doesn’t always happen when 7 year old's gossip in the cafeteria!) and they are not bottling up any fear. 

These categories provide a general outline of tough topics you might address with your child. You may find these breakdowns useful as a guide, but follow your child’s lead (more information on this in the next section) as one issue might take precedence and impact your child more intensely than others for a variety of reasons.

How do I know what topics to address with my child?

First and foremost, you should address the “close to home” issues if there are any. No matter if your child is speaking about these topics, they are worth discussing because they will impact your child’s daily  life, which can make them feel upset even if they don’t know why.

To figure out which more nuanced topics are impacting your child, try these steps:

1. Check in: Ask Your Child What’s on Their Mind

The topics worth addressing are the ones that are on your child’s mind. Therefore, it is important to create frequent, low-stakes opportunities for your child to share their thoughts and feelings. When playing with their favorite LEGOs, reading a bedtime story, or even pushing your child around in the grocery cart, frequently ask them how they are feeling

In these conversations, your child may benefit from you sharing your own feelings as well (this strategy works with adults too)!  Not only will these routine check-ins help your child develop their social-emotional skills by expressing themselves, but they will also help you understand what topics are on their mind, and what issues need to be talked about.

2. Listen & Look: Be on the Lookout for  “Silent” Indicators of Trauma

While your child may freely bring up some issues on their mind, they might not as willingly open up about other issues or they may not be able to express their feelings (they are still kids after all).  

With the incredible amount of information shared in today’s world, it is impossible to know everything your child absorbs. It’s important to listen and look for  warning signs that your child is distressed

Here are some behavioral indicators to look out for:

  • Quick changing moods
  • Bad dreams
  • Regressive behaviors (bedwetting, thumb sucking, etc.)

How should I talk to my child?

Although tough topics have a wide range in scope, psychologists have developed a general approach that adults should adopt when talking to children about tough topics:

  1. Find a Quiet Time: Since this is a delicate, and potentially new, topic for your child, it is important to find a distraction-free and calm moment to talk. 
  2.  ❓ Ask Questions: Before sharing, find out what your child already knows. Ask several follow-up questions, including how they feel about the situation. Your child’s answers will give you a better sense of what further information they need to feel safe.
  3. 👐 Be Honest & Open: Share both facts about the issue and how you feel about it. State the facts in a way that your child can understand, but there is no need to share graphic details. Share how you feel about the issue so your child sees that even trusted adults can feel upset sometimes, but there are ways to cope.  
  4. 💓Reassure: Most importantly, you should reinforce several times that your child is safe.  You should ensure that your child knows that even if they are upset, their home with you is secure and filled with love. 

Example in Action: Talking Co-Parenting 

When parents divorce or separate, it is very important to discuss co-parenting with your child. Talking about co-parenting will help your child accept the situation, share their feelings openly, and avoid internalizing any negative feelings like guilt, resentment, or inadequacy. 

Here is how you might utilize the general approach above when talking about co-parenting with your child:

1. ⌛ Find a Quiet Time

(Maybe a Sunday afternoon while baking cookies together)  

2.Ask Questions

“How are you feeling about Daddy moving into his new apartment?” 

“Do you feel sad, angry, or nervous? Why you think you’re feeling this way?” 

3. 👐 Be Honest & Open

“I’m feeling sad too. It’s hard to adjust when living arrangements change. But Daddy, you, and I will figure out a new routine together. And after a while, we will get used to the change and it will actually make us happier. Daddy and I will not fight anymore.” 

4. 💓 Reassure: 

“Your dad and I love you so much. You did not do anything wrong.”

“It’s okay to be upset. I understand. Take as long as you need.”

“Thank you for being so honest with me. You are so brave. You can always tell me or your dad anything.”

“You will always be safe with us, no matter if you are here with me or at your apartment with your dad. We will always be here for you.”

Depending on your child’s reactions to this discussion, you should adjust your questions and reassuring methods to what your child needs. Also, if you don’t feel like you got it right the first time, that is okay! This discussion should be one of many

It will take time for your child to process a big change, and new points of discussion will organically arise as the situation evolves.

Example in Action: Talking About School Shootings

While a “global issue” like school shootings may not impact your child’s daily routine like other issues might, learning about them could be traumatic and may cause your child to be scared. With the rate of school shootings in the United States at an all time high and schools practicing drills to best prepare, it may be wise to check in with your child and understand how they are feeling about this issue. 

Here is how you might adapt the general approach above to a conversation about school shootings with your child:

1. ⌛Find a Quiet Time

(Maybe after pick up on a day with a code red drill)  

2. ❓ Ask Questions

“Did you have the code red drill* today?”

“How did you feel during the drill?”

“What did your teachers tell you about why you are having the drill?”

“Do you have any questions about why you are having the drill?”

*note: use whatever language your child’s school is using to be consistent and avoid creating confusion. Common phrases for this drill are “shelter-in-place,” “lockdown,” and “code red.”

3. 👐 Be Honest & Open

“I am very sad that students, teachers, and their families have suffered when a shooting happens. It is really scary. But your school is working hard to keep you safe, so it’s important you listen closely when they give you instructions.” 

4. 💓 Reassure

“The drills don’t mean that your school thinks that a shooting will happen. They are being extra careful for a just in case scenario. You are very brave for how you’ve handled the drills. Also, your teachers are trained to protect you no matter what. Your school is a very safe place.”

Similar to the example discussion on co-parenting, you should adjust your questions and reassuring methods to your child’s reactions and needs. Also, it is likely that your child will process this information and come back with more questions in the future. 

What if I don’t know what to say?

Sometimes, there isn’t a clear answer to your child’s questions on tough topics. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” in these situations. Admitting that sometimes even adults do not know the answer to a tough question is beneficial for your child to understand. 

It is important for a child’s social-emotional growth to understand that sometimes there isn’t a clear answer to a problem.

The Positive Impact of Discussing Tough Topics

Talking to your child about tough topics has a number of benefits for your child:

  1. It will show your child that you are available and supportive. This will help your child build trust and want to come to you about future tough situations.
  2. Your child will develop their social-emotional skills by talking about their feelings and understanding your feelings on the tough topic. As a result, your child will realize that it is okay to feel negatively about a situation, and that sometimes adults feel negatively too. Your child will also learn that feelings are fleeting, and they will learn coping techniques to ease the pain they currently feel.
  3. Your child will feel safe after you reassure them of the situation. 

Note: It’s important not to lie to your child about a situation, as lying can have an adverse effect on their social emotional growth. Even though you cannot take away the pain of a tough issue, reassuring your child they are safe with you and trusted adults will give them essential emotional security.

How to Use Stories as a Support 

Even with a research-based approach to talking about these issues with your child, we know this won’t be easy. We also know how impossible it can feel to find the right resources to help your child. According to Education Week, 80% of adults feel there are too few social-emotional learning (SEL) supports available, and we agree! 

With Nookly, you don’t have to have them alone 🌞.. Before incorporating Nookly’s learning stories into your conversation with your child, it is still important to follow steps 1 and 2 of the generalized approach: ⌛ find a quiet, distraction-free place to talk with your child, and ask them questions about the issue. 

Then, Nookly can enhance your conversation with your child by generating a developmentally appropriate story on the topic that centers around a main character resembling your child. 

To access a personalized story, all you have to do is log onto Nookly and:

  1. Enter the topic that you are discussing with your child
  2. Review the storyline we draft for you
  3. Play the story generated by our AI

With age-appropriate language and visual aids, Nookly-generated stories will help you navigate difficult issues with your child. Remember, Nookly is a tool and you are in charge. Make sure to review the story to make sure it fits the needs of your specific situation, and Nookly is not meant to replace professional advice ☺️. 

While discussing tough topics is never “fun,” Nookly can help your child cultivate the coping skills and understanding needed to handle life’s struggles while developing their social-emotional skills.