By far the hardest conversation I have ever had was telling my children that their father had left.
Seeing their hearts break (and being the one to break them) was intensely difficult as a parent. They asked questions I couldn’t answer. They wanted solutions I couldn’t give.
It was a difficult and emotional time, one I’m sure I could have handled better.
But since that day we’ve had many more hard conversations and I have learnt a lot about tackling big issues with kids. These lessons apply to a lot of situations and make me realise that there are a lot of times I could have handled things better when having tough conversations with friends and family too.
Most people will understand that feeling of aversion you get when faced with someone going through a difficult situation. Maybe a miscarriage, a divorce, a job loss or a death. Many choose to avoid the person suffering rather than have an awkward conversation, for fear of saying the wrong thing. I have been terribly guilty of this in the past.
Sometimes we can be guilty of doing this with our kids too. We try to protect them by not talking about an issue for fear of making things worse. Unfortunately, glossing over a painful event is not going to make things better and could have the opposite effect.
When it comes to tough conversations and situations with kids, here are some things I’ve learnt in recent years:
1. Deal with your own emotions first
When things involve our children on any level, parents are emotionally invested from the start. Sometimes this can cloud our judgement on how best to support our child.
When telling my kids about their father, I was still reeling from shock myself. I wasn’t able to focus on them properly as it was all too raw for me. I should have given myself just a little more time to process things so that I was better equipped to support them.
2. Pick your time
Obviously just before you drop the kids off to school isn’t a great time to blurt out that grandma is dying. You know your kids and when they are most settled. Breaking bad news in a place where they feel safe and have your undivided attention is the best option.
3. Tell them what they need to know – nothing more
Sometimes we can overwhelm kids with information when dealing with emotional or difficult subjects. For example, if there is a death in the family – keep things simple, truthful and age appropriate. No complex details are required as it will only give them more things to process along with the difficult news. Try to plan what you are going to say prior to the conversation. If they have more questions, let them know you will do your best to answer them truthfully but only provide the information they need to know.
4. Let them express themselves the way they see fit
Kids may need help with this but some examples include drawing, journaling, talking or doing something physical like climbing or jumping on the trampoline. Give them an outlet to process their emotions and let them know whatever they are feeling in normal.
It’s also ok to share your feelings with your child – just as long as you have a good handle on them and don’t use your child to offload to. Letting your child know that you have similar feelings helps normalise what they are experiencing.
5. Hold space for them
This is the biggest thing I have learnt which transfers to my adult relationships. Being there for someone as a support doesn’t always mean trying to fix things or make things better. Often we just can’t. But we can be there to listen and provide a shoulder to cry on, without judgement or trying to control the situation. Let your child know you are their safe place by reassuring them that you love them and will always be there.
Talking to our kids about tough stuff is hard! But by doing so, we create a stronger relationship with our child which facilitates ongoing communication. By letting them know we are there to help them tackle the big issues, our children are able to learn and grow, becoming more resilient young people.