Q. I’m doing fine answering the “why” questions my kids ask about everyday stuff like eating their veggies or bedtime. But I’m stumped on tough topics like divorce and war. I usually mumble something like, “Let’s talk about it later,” but later never comes. How can I do a better job talking about these things?
A. Have you ever heard a mom or child claim they can talk with the other about anything? It’s all about creating an atmosphere in which both parties are comfortable. I’ve collected some suggestions from experts in parenting, my own ideas and those from some of the best moms I know.
- Develop a good relationship. This doesn’t mean you can’t have house rules and consequences. It means you don’t yell and take out frustrations on your kids, but provide a home base of safety, love and guidance.
- Give positive feedback for starting the conversation. Say something like, “That’s a very good question” or “I’m glad you feel comfortable asking me.” This sets the stage for the child saying more.
- Be fully present for listening and responding. Give eye contact and touch if your child is comfortable with this—some kids aren’t. Remain calm to signal that talking about the subject is okay.
- Follow your child’s cues. Give a short answer and listen to the response. If your child asks for more info, give it. But if she seems satisfied with your answer, stop there. Welcome the child to come back if she has more questions.
- Consider paraphrasing what your child says. He may want to change what he’s saying to help you better understand his question.
- Try using a “questions journal.” Your child might prefer to ask questions in a notebook and leave them for you to answer in writing. This strategy removes some of the discomfort of talking face to face, and you can provide a thoughtful answer.
- Address the subtext of the question. Young children often want to know they’re safe. Asking about divorce may come from fears that you’ll get divorced. Asking why people go to war may come from something she saw on TV. As grade schoolers mature, they become more concerned about fairness.
Tweens’ and teens’ questions can be tougher: “When did you first have sex?” or “Did you ever do drugs?” Adolescents often question their parent’s behavior and beliefs so they can separate and develop their own identity. In some cases, they’re looking to justify their own behavior.
A teen may need to hear that you’d do things differently if you could. Let them see and hear your values on education, volunteering, being honest, showing kindness, etc. It’s surprising how important your values will become for them—if not now, then later.
Not answering is a challenge. You can deflect some questions with, “I’m not so sure that you need to know that. Would my answer help you in some way?” The response can guide you in deciding whether to open up and how much info to share. You can stall while you think of your answer with, “I hear you asking (fill in the blank) and I wonder if I asked you the same question, would you answer honestly? Let’s try to be open with each other, not judgmental.”
It’s not too late for those questions you haven’t answered. Look for signs your child is receptive. Being alone in the car might make your child willing to talk. Bring up the subject with something like, “The other day you asked me about (fill in the blank). Let’s talk about that now.”
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.
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