Parenting Our Children

Tough Talks

Published Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Discussing awkward topics with your kids can be intimidating, but honesty goes a long way

By Millie Acebal Rousseau

When is the right time to talk with your child about stranger danger? What's the best way to open a conversation about puberty and sexual health? There are no easy answers to these questions. But what's clear is the "why" of having these tough talks: to protect and safeguard your child.

Tough TalksYou may not realize it, but you're always talking to your child about tough topics. Every time you offer your toddler a choice, you are teaching him that choices have consequences. Even simple everyday conversations set the stage for later discussions. "To a 3-year-old [you may say], 'You can't take too many of those gummy bear vitamins,' " says Peggy Sapp, president and CEO of Informed Families. "There's your drug lecture right there. Giving clear messages — that's what's important."

Certain milestones in your child's life may merit a more involved discussion — such as the first day at a new school, a first sleep-away trip or a first date.

According to family and school psychologist Lani W. Kaskel, Ph.D., it's important to keep in mind your child's age. Dr. Kaskel recommends talking about stranger danger and inappropriate touching to children as young as 3 or 4 —definitely before he or she attends a pre-K program.

Parents should address hygiene and changing bodies well before middle school. "Puberty is something that I suggest the same-sex parent (if available) discuss with the child," she says. For girls, age 9 or 10 is a good time to start to explain what's ahead. Boys often hit puberty a few years later. Be prepared for their questions by using books to facilitate the discussion.

Discussions about birth control, sexual health and making good choices should take place prior to high school, perhaps in middle school or even sooner. The same holds true for discussions regarding drugs and alcohol. Depending on whether your child has older siblings and what he or she may have been exposed to in your community, you may want to start sooner rather than later. Younger children who are negatively affected by a family member struggling with addiction may benefit from visiting Alatot or Alateen, websites that include help books, resources and activities for kids.

Tips for tackling tough topics:

• Talks should be casual, not intimidating.

• Deliver simple, straightforward messages on what's acceptable and what's not.

• Find a quiet time to converse, such as during a car ride, before bedtime, or when homework is done. Consider a one-on-one lunch "date" with your child.

• If your child wants to interact or talk with you when you are not available, don't miss a golden opportunity. Ask for a few minutes to orient yourself, or arrange for another time to talk. Then be sure to follow through.

Another topic to tackle is bullying and peer pressure. Always encourage your children to come to you if they're having problems. Be vigilant for changes in mood or behaviors that may indicate bullying is taking place. Your child may appear withdrawn, lose their appetite or interest in fun activities, have nightmares or problems sleeping, suffer with frequent headaches or tummy aches, fake illness to avoid school, have a sudden decline in grades or resist going to school. If you observe any of these warning signs, broach the subject yourself.

Remember your children watch what you do, and you often say more with your actions than words. Children — especially teens — know how to push your buttons, so enlist help from other family members or even the child's pediatrician. It's important not to give up on offering guidance — even during troublesome phases.

Timing is everything, and some places and situations are certainly more conducive than others for a talk. One good time to talk regularly is in the car while driving. Avoid lecturing; instead engage your children in a conversation, Sapp recommends. "Good parenting is knowing your kid, reading your kid and being able to take advantage of when they can hear you," she says. "There is no one time to give the great lecture. You have to talk frequently and often, and be in tune to your children and the environment that's going on around them. If something is going on, you need to be ready to talk then."