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10 strategies for tackling tough conversations with your children

Discussing tricky or sensitive subjects can be good for your relationship with your little ones, expert Dr Shauna Tominey tells Lisa Salmon

Heart-to-heart: honest conversations deepen and enrich the bond between parent and child, says Dr Shauna Tominey
Heart-to-heart: honest conversations deepen and enrich the bond between parent and child, says Dr Shauna Tominey

It's natural to want to protect young children from hearing about, or seeing the 'bad stuff' that goes on in the world and can sometimes even occur within our own families.

But it's not always possible to avoid children's questions about unpleasant issues, be that death and destruction in the news, or arguments, illness or death within the family.

While it can be tempting to try to gloss over the issue, especially if the child is very young, Dr Shauna Tominey, author of new book Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations To Have With Young Children, says tackling the tough stuff is often good for the parent-child relationship.

"As parents of young children, we can often find ourselves caught off guard by children's questions," she adds.

"Children sometimes bring up tough topics before we feel ready to address them, but tackling tough conversations gives us a chance to let children know that it's okay for them to come to us about anything."

Tominey, an assistant professor of practice and parenting education specialist at Oregon State University in the US, stresses that, as they get older, children will seek information from friends, other adults or the internet.

While it's normal for them to grow increasingly independent, it's also important they know they can turn to their parents at any time.

"When children are young, we can make sure they learn to trust us to be there to talk about anything," Tominey says.

"We often talk with our children about conversation topics that come up in our daily lives, but we can do more than that: we can be proactive and bring up topics that help children build skills to face challenges in the future, and help them understand the challenges others have to build their understanding and empathy."

She suggests these 10 strategies for tackling tough topics with young children...

1. Address their immediate worries and fears

Reassure children they're safe and that you'll always do your best to keep them safe. Help children regain a sense of control by talking about things they can think, say and do to manage feelings now and to help others who might be worried or afraid too.

2. Use a non-judgemental tone

How we talk about a topic shapes how children feel about it, explains Tomine: "Children don't always have the stigmas that we do about topics like race, gender and mental health, and we can help them have open conversations if we stretch ourselves to do the same." Set a tone that fosters children's natural curiosity, and help them feel comfortable to speak openly without fear of punishment or shame.

3. Learn what your child knows

Hearing what your child knows about a topic can help you decide where it might be best to start. Understanding what your child's thinking about, and what questions they have, can help you ease fears and clear up misunderstandings.

4. Share your feelings

Let your child know all feelings are okay and that you have feelings too. Set an example by sharing your feelings with your child, and encourage them to share their feelings when they're ready. You and your child probably have many feelings about a topic, and they may not be the same as one another's. Talk about what you can do to express those feelings in a helpful way.

5. Talk outside of emotionally-charged moments

Comfort your child during emotional moments, but come back to the topic at a time when you're both calm. "When you or your child feel triggered, stressed, angry, or frustrated, it can be challenging to think clearly, speak calmly and make good choices," says Tominey.

6. Teach children coping skills

Think about the information and skills your child needs to cope with a situation or make good choices if a challenging issue arises. Encourage them to think about what they can do, who they can talk to and things that happen that might make it hard to make good decisions.

7. Be creative about what you call a conversation

Conversations with children happen in many different ways, including while running errands, during bath time, over family meals, in the car and more. Sometimes it's easier to talk about a challenging topic while doing another activity together.

8. Have conversations repeatedly

Children learn through repetition. Having conversations more than once will help them learn the different sides of a topic. In addition, what children are able to remember and understand will change over time.

9. Give yourself the chance to try again

There may be times when a conversation doesn't happen the way you'd like it to. Step back, reflect on how you can approach the topic differently next time and give yourself the chance to try again.

10. Learn from your child

As you and your child have conversations, listen to and learn from one another. You may be surprised by the insights your child has to offer. Tominey explains: "One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a listening ear, and the knowledge that they have someone they can turn to, no matter what. Tackling tough conversation topics is one way to give them just that."

Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations To Have With Young Children, by Shauna Tominey, is published by WW Norton, priced £16.99

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