As a former Connections Academy School Counselor for over nine years, and with over 18 years of teaching experience, some of the most common questions I was asked by online school parents during our routine calls were about how to have difficult conversations with their child, such as:
- How to talk to kids about the loss of a pet?
- How do I tell him that his parents are divorcing?
- She has not had much to say about the loss of her grandmother, how do I talk to her about how she is feeling?
- How do I help my teen deal with their emotions?
- We discovered inappropriate texts in her phone, how do I talk to her about this?
These questions provided a great opportunity for me to remind parents of what they already know as the expert on their child, and to provide strategies on how to have hard conversations. Understanding how to navigate difficult topics not only can help create a solid foundation of trust between you and your child, but also provides a good communication model they can follow in their other relationships. While strategies can vary depending on the topic at hand, below are six general tips for handling the hard talks that will inevitably come your way.
1. Prepare for these Difficult Conversations
Sometimes those tough conversations can happen without warning, but if you do have time to prepare, it can be helpful. Take time to think about the message you want to get across and carefully plan your phrasing, while avoiding coming across as if you are following a script. Of course, it’s always best to have the conversation when you are rested, relaxed, and feeling patient.
- Go into the conversation calmly with a plan to identify what your child already knows about the topic and what you hope to communicate to them.
- Prepare yourself for any information that may surprise you.
- Depending on the situation, your child may share information with you that is shocking.
Make a plan to calm yourself in order to keep from showing a big emotional reaction, since that reaction could cause your child to no longer feel safe in sharing information with you.
2. Be Attentive
Whether it is your first-grader with questions about death and losing a pet or your teen sharing their feelings about your recent divorce, it is important to be entirely present and listen deeply. Listen with your entire body—make eye contact, lean in, nod, and don’t be distracted by electronics or other conversations.
Paraphrasing or summarizing statements is another great strategy to show that you are listening and is a way to clarify what your child is trying to say. You can start with “So what I just heard you say is…” and restate your understanding of what was said. Avoid interrupting while your child is talking or being judgmental in your responses.
Depending on the topic, it can be a good idea to have a casual approach. For instance, if your goal is to learn important details about a conflict that happened at school, consider talking while folding laundry or preparing dinner together. This can make the conversation feel less intimidating while being attentive, instead of a face-to-face sit-down session. Remember that by giving your full attention to this tough conversation, you are establishing trust and communicating that you value and respect your child’s thoughts and opinions.
3. Be Honest
No matter how well-prepared you are for the conversation, it can be hard to answer your child honestly when you know the truth will hurt them. However, research shows that children can sense when their parents are not being honest with them, which can lead to a lack of trust in the parent-child relationship.
Keep in mind that children are amazingly resilient and can deal with just about anything with the support of their parents, especially when the truth is delivered in a gentle, age-appropriate, and comforting way. Don’t
4. Keep This Difficult Conversation Short and Simple
Be honest but stick to the facts. We all tend to lose focus when listening to someone talk for a long time. This is especially true of children, who naturally have a shorter attention span. When learning how to talk to kids about a difficult topic:
- Simplify the facts as much as possible
- Use age-appropriate language
- Avoid unnecessary details that could cause them distress
For instance, you can tell them that their dog died without sharing information about all the gory injuries that led to their death. Keep in mind that younger children will sometimes blame themselves or use their imagination to fill in any “blanks” they have about situations they do not understand. A reassuring, simple, and factual approach can set a calming tone for an otherwise stressful situation.
5. Acknowledge Emotions for Kids
Difficult conversations usually come with a variety of emotional responses, even for adults. Teaching your child to recognize how they are feeling is an important step in managing emotions.
- Watch for verbal and non-verbal cues during the conversation
- Look for opportunities to let them know you are aware that they may have different feelings about what has happened
For example, if you notice your child seems sad when listening to you deliver upsetting news, it is a good idea to ask, “How are you feeling about this?” or to say “It is okay to feel sad or to have other feelings about what has happened.”
- Acknowledge your own feelings about the situation but avoid sharing any anxiety you have, since that can cause your child to become anxious as well.
- Work through your own feelings about the situation with another adult instead, preferably before talking with your child.
You will know if your tough conversation went well if your child comes away feeling loved, supported, and empowered to talk about the difficult topic. Guiding your child through recognizing and managing their feelings can give them a sense of control in any situation where they may feel powerless.
- Let your child know that you are available to answer any questions that may come up later
- Plan to follow up with them frequently to check in
- Ask if they have any worries about the topic and talk through those worries.
- Guide your child in finding solutions or coping strategies, depending on the situation.
- In situations that require disciplinary action of some kind, focus on the behavior instead of shaming.
You can use phrasing such as “I know this situation is hard for you, but I am here to help,” or “this is a hard situation, but we can get through this together.” Hard conversations are great opportunities to discuss better decision-making processes and to correct behavior.
Sometimes, a change of pace or environment might be the best long-term solution for your child. Whether your tough conversations have involved bullies, catching up in school, or needing flexibility while dealing with the after effects of divorce—an online school like Connections Academy might be right for you and your child. Hear from some of our parents break the top myths of online school, and why they found it to be the right fit for their families.
Karen Muston is a school counseling consultant for Pearson Virtual Schools, where she provides support and guidance for virtual school counselors across the nation. With over 18 years of experience in education, and over 9 years of experience as a virtual school counselor, her position allows her to pursue a lifelong passion for helping others to recognize and to reach their potential as they explore endless possibilities for success. Karen’s experiences as a high school English teacher, virtual school counselor, professional speaker/trainer and as a parent of two grown children have helped to fuel her desire to partner with students and their families as they navigate through life challenges.
She has her B.S. in English and Psychology, a M.S. in Psychology and Counseling, has her teaching certification in English, and is a certified school counselor. Additionally, she is a Certified AFSP (American Federation for Suicide Prevention) Suicide Bereavement Group Facilitator, a member of ASCA (American School Counselor Association), and has provided numerous workshops and presentations for school counselors, educators, and families on topics related to therapeutic practices, student success, and emotional health and wellness.