Alison Bellevue, Psy.D. | Director of Child, Adolescent, and Family Services:
As parents, it’s our job to teach our children about themselves and the world around them, which at times, can lead to complicated, uncomfortable, and emotionally distressing conversations. Depending on where you are in your parenting journey, you have likely already made it through at least a handful of these quintessential parenting moments. From discussing bodily waste during potty training, developing bodies during puberty, and consent within sexual relationships, you are expected to jump in headfirst and provide expert guidance. As parents living in a nation that is concurrently experiencing a health pandemic and a racism pandemic, we are being forced to delve into these conversations at what feels like an extraordinarily rapid pace, and at a time when we are already feeling exhausted, anxious, and maybe even demoralized ourselves. No matter the topic or if you are speaking about it with your child for the first or twentieth time, I hope to give you some practical tips on how best to prepare yourself for these conversations so you feel more confident and capable to throw yourself into these moments with your child.
First, take time to identify your specific goals for the conversation. You might start by filling in the following blank, “after this conversation I hope___________”. Some options could be, I have a greater understanding of my child’s thoughts and feelings about this topic, my child feels confident about how to respond in specific situations, or I have reduced my child’s confusion about this topic. It is also important to not just think about the results of the conversation, but the process of the conversation as well. Specifically, take time to think about the way in which you will engage your child in the conversation and what you hope will be achieved by addressing the topic in a certain way. Start by filling in the following blank, “throughout this conversation I want my child to think or feel ____________”. Some options could be, that openly discussing this topic is okay, that I am interested in her perspective, or supported by me.
Second, take time to understand your beliefs about the topic. Do you have enough information about the topic to effectively speak with your child about it? If necessary, take time to deepen your understanding by doing additional reading, listening to podcasts, or speaking with others. You do not have to be an expert in order to begin the conversation, and it can even be beneficial to let your child know that you are still learning and trying to figure things out along with him or her. In addition, ask yourself if you have a particular hope for the position your child will take on this topic. There are some topics, such as racism, that require you to express a clear and definitive stance and expectation for your child. There are other topics, such as sexual orientation, that are best spoken about with openness that encourages exploration. Allowing your child the opportunity to discuss complicated issues within a nurturing and nonjudgmental environment is essential to identity development and eventual independence. While guidance from you is necessary, it is important to be aware of your own beliefs and how they may influence the conversation.
Third, take time to understand your emotions about the topic. Often, fear causes us to avoid things, such as discussing a certain topic with our child. When thinking about having this conversation, ask yourself, “What I am afraid will happen?” Identifying this fear will help you prepare more effectively and hopefully realize that your fears are unlikely to occur or, if they do, are not as catastrophic as you think. For example, you may be afraid that having the conversation will increase your child’s fear or sadness. For this, you can think of all the times your child has been fearful or sad and how you effectively helped them through it. In addition, the topic itself may elicit intense emotions for you, which may make it challenging to have an effective conversation with your child. If this is the case, take time to practice thinking and talking about the topic while using various strategies to reduce the intensity of your emotions. During the conversation, it could be helpful to have items available to help you regulate your emotions, such as soothing music playing in the background, hot herbal tea or very cold water, or a soft blanket. The goal is not for you to show no emotion, but to show emotion in a way that allows you to continue participating in the conversation. In fact, modeling how to express emotions in an effective way is beneficial for your child; it is okay to cry or verbalize feeling angry or fearful about the topic at hand.
I want to leave you with what I hope is a bit of a confidence boost. You know your child better than anyone. I know I just encouraged you to take time to think things through prior to jumping into the conversation, but now I am encouraging you to trust your instincts and not overthink it. There is no perfect conversation or way of saying things. You do not need to be an expert on the topic or how to speak about it to begin the conversation. If you engage with your child in a manner that demonstrates openness, curiosity, and love, there is no misstep that can be made that cannot be remedied.
Check out our webinar on How to Talk to Kids About Race here.