Having Difficult Conversations in Challenging Times

Lisa Larsen, LPC
It’s an inevitable experience for every parent when the moment arrives for the difficult conversation…from the loss of a treasured family pet to “that” notoriously awkward talk which many of us never feel ready for! Topics such as violence in our modern world, safety, war, making healthy choices about our bodies, and facing daunting peer pressure can stop us in our tracks. What is too much? How do we honor privacy but still protect them? Although these thoughts may worry us that we are not doing or saying the right things, keep this in mind - as parents in this age of digital connection and unprecedented access to information, we MUST talk to them because if we do not, we are allowing friends, the internet, and social media to educate them passively. I say this not to frighten, but to speak honestly. You are the PERFECT person to walk your child through these difficult topics because it comes from a place of unconditional love and the intent to help them grow into caring, educated, empathetic, loving adults. Your genuine attempts to walk through these uncomfortable conversations far outweigh any “mistakes” you think you may make. 

Here are a few tips:

Begin by following your child’s lead. Ask for clarification about the topic - what do they mean by the question? Make sure you are both on the same page about the topic they are asking about. Only answer the questions they are asking. Giving them too much information can add worry or confusion. Trust me, if they have additional questions, they will naturally follow. Also, keep in mind, if they are asking the question, they have heard it, seen it, or or heard about it from friends. For older kids, I encourage you to provide books that go into much greater detail about topics such as health, wellness, sexual development, and identity development (that you have reviewed) so they can read them when they are ready or are looking for accurate information on the topic. I cannot stress this enough. You do not need to be an expert, but providing expert information based on current data by professionals you trust who DO know gives your child the autonomy to read it when he or she needs to. Always let them know you are available to answer any questions they may have after reading the book. They will read it when a challenging situation shows up.

Be a good listener. The basics really matter here. Stop everything you are doing when the questions come. Make eye contact, turn your body to face them, take the conversation slowly, do not interrupt or jump in with an instant emotional reaction, and repeat back what they said so they know you are listening. As parents, the desire to lecture and impart our wisdom with lengthy speeches is hard to curb, but stop yourself. The less you say the better. Be precise and always listen with empathy. For parents of teenagers, some of the best discussions happen in the car or when you are doing something together (cooking, golfing, walking) where the child maybe doesn’t have to look you in the eye to talk about something hard.

Validate your child’s feelings. As much as we want to ease their pain or stop them from worrying, avoid the quick “Everything will be fine” or “You don’t need to worry about that” response. It negates their genuine feelings in the moment. We all need to feel heard before we are able to listen. Period. A simple “It sounds like you feel really hurt (scared, angry, etc) when ___ happened. I can understand how that must feel.” 

Be truthful about difficult topics. This is a tough one, I know. We have to keep in mind that our kids are smart. If they believe you are not being honest, they will look for answers elsewhere. Your young one may be worried about a bad guy with a gun or your middle schooler may have seen an act of violence on the news, or be genuinely uncomfortable about something explicit they saw on social media - be careful not to sugar coat it with phrases that don’t ring true such as “I will always protect you” or “Nothing like that will ever happen to you.” Acknowledge the feelings first and then be honest. “Yes, I know seeing ___ is scary, and sometimes bad things happen, but you are safe right now," or “There are no bad guys in the house." You can also talk about safety plans both in your house and at school so they know the adults around them take their concerns and their safety seriously. Teach coping skills such as how to calm their bodies in moments of stress and how to use their words to share thoughts and feelings. These are invaluable moments with teens to open the discussion about the dark side of the internet, adult language and terms (you know what I mean!), how to make choices that keep them safe online, and when to go to an adult they trust with concerns or questions. You are the scaffolding that provides the security growing children and teenagers need to develop integrity while becoming independent. 

I also encourage you to reach out to other parents and families who have gone through or are currently experiencing challenging choices about how to set boundaries around cell phones, video games, and technology or how they talked through various difficult topics. Do not be concerned about the “but EVERYONE is allowed to do ______.” response. You create the boundaries for your family that speak to your values and priorities. You will be surprised to learn you are far from being the meanest parent in the world!

Although these are certainly challenging times as a parent, stay the course, find the support and resources you need and don’t be afraid to tackle the difficult topics. You got this! And remember we are here to support you. Never hesitate to reach out to one of us.

Lisa Hellmer, LPC
St Gabriel’s Counselor
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.