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Tough talking: 10 ways to tackle difficult conversations with young children

Having those tricky talks can be good for your relationship with your child, Dr Shauna Tominey tells Lisa Salmon

How we talk about a topic shapes how children feel about it

IT'S natural to want to protect young children from hearing about, or seeing the 'bad stuff' that goes on in the world – and can sometimes even occur within our own families.

Dr Shauna Tominey, an assistant professor of practice and parenting education specialist at Oregon State University in the US, notes that as they get older, children will seek information from friends, other adults or the internet – and while it's normal for them to grow increasingly independent, it's also important they know they can turn to their parents at any time.

She suggests these 10 strategies for tackling tough topics with young children.:

1. Address their immediate worries and fears: Reassure children they're safe, or that you'll always do your best to keep them safe. Help children regain a sense of control by talking about things they can think, say and do to manage feelings now and to help others who might be worried or afraid too.

2. Use a non-judgmental tone: How we talk about a topic shapes how children feel about it, explains Tominey. "Children don't always have the stigmas that we do about topics like race, gender or mental health, and we can help them have open conversations if we stretch ourselves to do the same." Set a tone that fosters children's natural curiosity, and help them feel comfortable speaking openly without fear of punishment or shame.

3. Learn what your child knows: Hearing what your child knows about a topic can help you decide where it might be best to start. Understanding what your child's thinking about, and what questions they have, can help you ease fears and clear up misunderstandings.

4. Share your feelings: Let your child know all feelings are OK and that you have feelings too. Set an example by sharing your feelings with your child and encourage them to share their feelings when they're ready. Talk about what you can do to express those feelings in a helpful way.

5. Talk outside of emotionally charged moments: Comfort your child during emotional moments, but come back to the topic at a time when you're both calm. "When you or your child feel triggered – stressed, angry, or frustrated – it can be challenging to think clearly, speak calmly, and make good choices."

6. Teach children coping skills: Think about the information and skills your child needs to cope with a situation or make good choices if a challenging issue arises in the future. Encourage them to think about what they can do, who they can talk to, and things that happen that might make it hard to make good decisions.

7. Be creative about what you call a conversation: Conversations with children happen in many different ways, including while running errands, during bath time, over family meals, in the car, and more. Sometimes it's easier to talk about a challenging topic while doing another activity together.

8. Have conversations repeatedly: Children learn through repetition. Having conversations more than once will help them learn different sides of a topic. In addition, what children are able to remember and understand will change over time.

9. Give yourself the chance to try again: There may be times when a conversation doesn't happen the way you'd like it to. Step back, reflect on how you can approach the topic differently next time, and give yourself the chance to try again.

10. Learn from your child: As you and your child have conversations, listen to and learn from one another. You may be surprised by the insights your child has to offer. Tominey adds: "One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a listening ear, and the knowledge they have someone they can turn to, no matter what."

:: Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations To Have With Young Children by Shauna Tominey is published by WW Norton, priced £16.99. Available now.

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