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Talking About Tough Topics


mom with arm around daughter on couch talking



It’s normal for you and your child to feel uncomfortable talking about tough topics such as divorce, illness, death, adoption, sex and world disasters.

Why it’s good to talk about tough topics

Divorce, illness, death, adoption, sex – they’re all part of life. Talking about tough topics is one way you can help your child deal with life’s challenges.

If you encourage open communication about tough topics, your child learns that he can always talk to you. He’ll understand that you’ll be there to listen if something is worrying him. If your child gets this message when he’s young, you have a solid base for communication as he heads into the teenage years.

Talking about tough topics with your child also gives you a chance to explain the values and beliefs that are important to your family.

Talking about tough topics can be important for your child’s wellbeing.

Before you start talking

You might think that talking about things like sex, death or divorce will upset your child. In fact, she’ll probably be glad to get things off her chest. But the way you handle tough topics might depend on your child’s age and stage of development.

For example, if your child is a toddler or preschooler, you might wait for her to raise topics with you rather than bringing them up yourself. But it’s worth being aware of what’s going on in your child’s life. If you know what she’s hearing or seeing at child care, on TV, online or from older siblings, you’ll be more likely to know if there could be something worrying her.

If your child is at school, he might hear about tough topics from his friends or the school community. You might choose to raise some tough topics with him before he asks about them, especially if he shows any change in his behaviour or something happens at school.

Once your child is old enough to be interested in the media, you can expect that she’ll be picking up on news, current affairs, celebrity gossip and social media discussions about all kinds of things.

Even if you’re not so interested in this stuff, it might be worth keeping in touch with hot media topics. Popular trends and topics can be good conversation starters. This way, you’ll have some idea of what your child is hearing, and you might not be blindsided if she brings it up with you. And if you raise some things yourself, you’ll have the chance to guide your child through the trickier topics.

Topics you have trouble with

There might be things that you find really difficult to talk about, maybe because of your own background or your cultural and religious values. That’s OK. If this sounds like you, you could consider talking to your partner or a friend about why some issues are difficult for you. It’s important to talk about tough topics. If your child doesn’t understand the facts in a way that is appropriate for his age, he might imagine things that are far worse than the truth.

Tips for managing tough conversations

It’s a good idea to think about some of these topics before your child asks. Then you’ll be prepared when a tough topic comes up.

Here are some tips to help you manage these conversations:

  • If something sad or scary happens in your family (illness, death, divorce), your child needs to hear it from you first. This also goes for events you think might really affect your child – for example, world disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. Setting aside some time for your child gives you the chance to talk about these things in a way that’s best for your child.
  • Raising tough topics with your child means you can choose a time when you and your child are relaxed. You might also choose a place where you and your child can be in private, and where you know your child feels comfortable.
  • Keep your answers simple. Give answers that are appropriate for your child's age. One simple sentence may be enough. Underneath a child's question, she may be worried about her safety, so offer reassurance.
  • Explain simply and consider your child’s age when explaining tough topics such as death. For example, you might say to a two-year-old child, “Grandma has died and we won’t see her anymore. I’m very sad”. For a seven-year-old you can include more information. For example, “Death means not living anymore, like the flowers die so they don’t grow anymore. Or the dog died so he doesn’t eat and play anymore. All living things die some time”.
  • Be honest and talk to your child as accurately and truthfully as you can. For example, “When people get divorced, it means they don’t live together anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you any more”.
  • Come back to the topic. Your child needs time to understand. Let her know that she can ask you questions. You might want to mention the topic again in a few days or a week if it hasn’t already come up.
  • Listen. After you’ve started the conversation, really listen to your child. Make eye contact and get down to your child’s level. You might find it useful to say his feelings back to him to check that you understand what he’s saying.
  • Be calm. Your child will often copy your reaction to sad or difficult topics, so stay calm. But it’s also OK to have feelings and to let your child know what they are. 

Storybooks can often be good conversation starters for kids of all ages. If you need ideas for books, you could talk to a librarian at your local library or school library, or to your child’s preschool, kinder or school teacher. You could also search online.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Talking With Your Child About Sex 
HealthLink BC: Grief – Helping Children Understand 
The Child Study Centre: Talking to Kids About World Natural Disasters
The Child Study Centre: How to talk with kids about money and families


Last Updated: November 30, 2014