Talking about Sensitive Subjects

Talking About 'Tough' Subjects

One of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects. It's hard enough to explain when Mr. Teddy Bear gets eaten by the washing machine. Or how their bike got stolen at school. It feels impossible to put into words the really big issues, such as violence, racism, drugs, and other weighty topics. But in the age of mobile phone notifications, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage -- when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories -- it's important to face this challenge head-on. Addressing the tough stuff makes your kids feel safer, strengthens your bond, and teaches them about the world. And when you show them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions, and cross-check sources, they become critical thinkers. It's always sad to confront the issues the world hasn't been able to solve. But by investing our kids with knowledge, compassion, and strong character, we can give them all the tools they need to make things better.

Teenagers today are openly engaged in media independently -- reading it, interacting with it, and even making their own and sharing it in the form of comments, videos, and memes. They often hear about difficult subjects in the news or from other places, such as in video game chats or on social media, without your knowledge. They're much more interested in what their friends or online folks think about an issue than in your opinion -- often scrolling to the bottom of an article to read user responses before they even read the whole story. They bristle at lectures -- because they think they know everything -- so encourage them to find media that can enrich their knowledge and ask questions that prompt them to think through their arguments.  

  • Encourage open dialogue. Teenagers need to know that they can ask questions, test their opinions, and speak freely without fear of consequences. Say, "We may not agree on everything, but I'm interested in what you have to say."
  • Ask open-ended questions and ask them to support their ideas. Say, "What do you think about police brutality?," "What do you know about it?," "Who do you think is at fault?," and "Why do you think that?"
  • Admit when you don't know something. As children move into the teenage phase, it's OK for them to see that their parents may not have all the answers. Say, "I don't know. Let's try to find out more."
  • Get them to consider the complexities in difficult subjects. Forces including social issues, politics, tradition, and more all contribute to making some problems seem incurable. Ask, "What makes difficult issues, such as rape, violence, and crime, so hard to solve?," "What key things would need to change to fix certain issues, such as poverty?," "How do policymakers get to the bottom of an issue to correct tough problems?," and "Should we accept tiny changes that help a problem little by little or insist on big changes?"
  • Share your values. Let your children know where you stand on issues, and explain why you hold certain values. If you want your children to be respectful of others' differences, for example, explain why you value tolerance and acceptance.
  • Talk about "their" news. Prompt them to consider how different sources put their own spin on the issues and how that influences an audience's opinion of an issue. Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat tend to serve up content from friends -- with stories that tend to confirm one point of view. How do these stories compare to supposedly objective news broadcasts on TV? How about sources designed for millennials such as Vice and Vox that feature reporters investigating stories in the trenches? Ask, "Does a reporter have to experience heroin dependency to be able to report a story on opiate addiction?"
  • Ask what they would do if they were in a really difficult situation? Teenagers are figuring out their own identities and can seek out risk. Considering how they would act if confronted with a terrible reality appeals to their own sense of adventure and is a way to get them to grapple with ethical dilemmas and see themselves making good choices. Say, "If you were caught in a political demonstration that turned violent and you saw people being mistreated, what would you do?"
  • Get them to consider solutions. Teenagers can be cynical, but they can also be idealistic. If anything is going to get better, it's this generation who's going to do it. Show them that you trust them for the job. Ask, "If you were in charge, what issue would you solve first and why -- and how would you do it?"

Talking About Difficult Subjects

NSPCC - Talking about difficult topics

Imperfect Families Website

Psycho Reg Website

NHS - Talking to your teenager

Discussing Eating Disorders

Beat Eating Disorders Website

NHS - Advice for Parents

NHS - Eating Disorders

Young Minds Anorexia

Parent Zone - Talking about Eating Disorder

Mental Health Website

Talking About Death

ChildLine - When someone dies

Marie Curie - Talking to children about death

NHS - Children and Bereavement

Childhood Bereavement Network Website

Cruse - How to help a child or young person

Winston Wish - Supporting a bereaved child

Depression And Anxiety in Children

NSPCC - Depression / Anxiety Mental Health

NHS - Talking to children about feelings

NHS - Children Depressed Signs

NHS - Self Harm

Mental Health Website - Children and Young People

Talking About Money & Debt

Money Advice Service - Struggling to talk to their children about money

Money Advice Service - how to talk to your children about money

Money Aware Website

Step Change Website - Talking about debt