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Who Needs to Speak to a Child About Intercourse and Dying?

January 20, 2024
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Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., is a child and teen developmental specialist who hosts the popular podcast, How to Talk to Kids About Anything. In her book How to Talk to Kids About Anything, she gives parents tips, scripts, and solid facts to help answer children’s questions that often come out of nowhere: Are you going to die? How are babies made? Why won’t anyone play with me?

As parents almost all of us have been stumped at some point. I had some questions of my own.

Did How to Talk to Kids About Anything stem from your own experiences, questions your children asked that you weren’t sure how to answer, or more related to what you heard from parents?

A bit of each. When I was in 5th grade, I was ostracized from my entire class, courtesy of a very powerful girl who didn’t like that her best friend was also mine. Many days I spent recess alone, watching the rest of the class whispering on the hill by the doors of the school. My teacher unsuccessfully tried to do something about the constant gossip and freeze-outs. At home, my sweet mom handed me tissue after tissue as I cried. She didn’t know what to say either. I knew that I wanted to help key adults know what to say to their kids in different tough situations.

My kids always asked questions, and I wanted to be the kind of parent who answered them with honest, solid information and to become their trusted source. When parents don’t answer their children’s difficult questions, children often turn to others, and we may not like who they choose or what those people tell them.

You’ve written a step-by-step guide to address kids’ difficult questions, whether they come from toddlers or preteens and teens. You cover everything from friendship to divorce, even money and body image. What do you think are the most difficult questions for parents to answer?

Parents tell me that the toughest questions to answer are related to sex or death. That’s usually because these subjects are the furthest things we associate with children. Talking about sex can make parents feel uncomfortable because they think it’s one, big, monumental conversation. You know, the sex talk, puberty talk, suicide talk, divorce talk, failure talk... That’s a lot of pressure. But it’s not—it’s a series of many conversations, starting when children are young through the teen years and even young adulthood, adding more detail as our children’s needs and interests change and mature.

You mention using “teachable moments” to keep conversations going. Can you give an example?

Talking to kids about death is many little talks since their understanding of death evolves. A teachable moment for a young child might be when our house plant dies. “These plants need water to live. We forgot to water it. It died. It is not alive anymore.”

Or, you might be walking along at the park and see a dead bug. “This bug isn’t sleeping. It’s dead. It can’t eat, sleep, or do any other buggy activities because it’s dead. It feels no pain. We see it’s bug body but it’s no longer alive.” We don’t want to mince words and confuse kids by saying it’s “sleeping.” This is the time to introduce death.

You have these kinds of teachable moments; then, when the family pet, the neighbor, or a grandparent dies, you don’t need to start with the concept of death—they have an initial understanding. Conversations grow with the child—older children might ask about what happens to the body, why it happened, where someone goes after they die, or more existential questions. Young children are very concrete, whereas teens often consider less tangible concepts about death.

Another example is talking about sex. These conversations start with naming body parts, discussing consent around hugging or tickling, or having discussions about who is allowed to touch your body and how. As children get older, these exchanges might be more focused on how babies are made—and grow further into discussions of misogyny, dating, romance, etc.

What about the child who doesn’t ask questions, but you know you should be talking about sex or friendship snags, for instance? How do you bring up the topic you think your son or daughter needs to understand? Should you?

Absolutely. There are lots of ways to springboard conversations:

1. Use something you saw on the news or online. “I read something today that said something surprising… what do you think about that?”

2. Use a story. I provide a lot of stories in my book that parents can use to broach difficult topics. For example, “I know you are frustrated about not being selected for the special art camp you wanted to go to this summer. Did you know that Dr. Seuss had to submit his first book 27 times before someone said ‘yes’? Remember, failure happens to everyone—and if we keep at it, practice, tweak, get help, and try again, we eventually can be successful. Keep going!”

3. Use a statistic. A statistic can be just the little morsel that starts the conversation. “I read about the most interesting study today! It said that 30% of teens experience bullying. Have you noticed this in school?” Even if your child doesn’t want to talk about it yet—offering a safe place to talk about these topics might just open the door to later discussions.

How does a parent know if their children are listening and absorbing the answers they present?

All of us wonder at times if our children tune out as soon as our lips start moving. But when I hear my daughter telling a friend, “It takes time to make friends at a new school—you’ve got to put yourself out there and try,” or my son tells me how his peers are being mean to a kid with disabilities because, “That’s just how his brain is wired, and he can’t help that he acts that way,” I think to myself, this talking stuff is actually working, and some of our other conversations may be working too.

Copyright @2024 by Susan Newman

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