There’s plenty of advice out there for avoiding awkward conversations, but some topics require you to tackle them head-on — especially if you’re a parent.
That embarrassing, but important, question is going to be asked. That horrible thing is going to be mentioned. That incident will occur, and there’s no choice but to explain. Best to be at least a little prepared.
Here are 11 potentially awkward conversations that are important to have with your kids, while you still have their ear.
Puberty — As in, periods, pubic hair and wet dreams happen.
Also known as “The Talk,” this is the awkward conversation everyone knows is going to happen. Your child’s body is going to change, right before your eyes, and it’s your job to help them understand the process.
Most experts recommend that conversations about changing bodies start very young, with accurate names for private parts and clear, functional descriptions of how the body works. You child will handle the “ewws” — it’s your job to normalize it all.
If you're anxious, or under-informed, there are hordes of puberty books you can leave lying around. You can read them together, if you’re brave. (If not, there are also age-appropriate videos.)
Most tweens will get some kind of education at school, but, by middle school, it’s likely too late to be truly useful. Get in there before all the misinformation has a chance to take hold.
Sex — As in, how to be safe, if and when you have it.
While conversations about puberty tend to end abruptly after adolescence, sex is an ongoing topic that encompasses so much, not just bodies and mechanics but feelings, complex social interactions, safety and identity.
Still, a similar approach is needed — ongoing, frequent, factual exchanges that happen over a period of years.
The good news is that kids want this information.
A recent study found that almost any kind of conversation between adults and teens about sex can be productive. The most effective?
“Adolescents appreciated conversations that were in-depth, covering various sex-related topics than what may be perceived as more one-dimensional conversations. These conversations were often characterized by parents’ stories about their own or others’ sexual history, experiences, and/or lessons,” say researchers.
In other words, get ready to share your private stuff. Storytelling is always more powerful than regurgitating facts.
It’s worth noting that the sample in the study heavily favored white, Christian girls. Girls, in fact, are by and large the ones receiving the more comprehensive sex talks — and that needs to change.
Sexual Identity — As in I, or someone we know, is gay.
Chances are, you’re probably more hung up about LGBTQ issues than your child. Gay marriage is the law of the land to them, not the decades-long struggle for legitimacy that it was just one generation ago. They probably have a slew of LGBTQ friends. They know what each of those letters stands for.
Still, coming out can be a big deal — whether it’s you coming out to your child, your child coming out to you, or the sexual orientation of someone in your community.
For young children, it’s easiest to talk about being LGBTQ in terms of relationships. “The secret to effectively talking to your child about gays: Love. It’s that simple,” wrote blogger Cary Vaughn in Scary Mommy. It’s a tongue-in-cheek post, but the sentiment is dead-on.
For older kids, there may be some discussion of discrimination or gay rights, especially if there’s something in the news, like whether a bakery has the right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. It’s a parents role to share facts and values.
And, conversely, if your child is coming out to you, you’re in luck — there are plenty of resources online, including PFLAG and the Human Rights Campaign that can help connect the whole family with whatever resources and support they might need.
Race — As in, here’s what discrimination looks like.
Unfortunately, you don’t need to look very far for examples of racism, racial bias and racial inequality. Shocking stories are in the headlines every day. How do you translate those headlines for a school-age or even teen audience? How you explain the lived experience of racism and racial bias to your family?
Well, by talking about it. “Not talking about race and racism sends a message to children that this is a taboo topic, no matter what their age,” said Rachel Berman, a researcher on a project called Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-Blindness in Early Childhood Settings, in a story for Today’s Parent.
There’s no single, correct script to follow, though. A lot depends on your own vantage point — your own racial identity, that of your family, what your community is like — but certain things will always resonate. Kids, even young ones, innately understand fairness.
Homelessness — As in, why is that person sleeping outside?
Seeing visibly homeless people can elicit some pretty basic questions — Where do they sleep at night? What do they eat? Where do they go to the bathroom? What happens when it rains? The answers are complex, and effective solutions are hard to come by.
And then there are all the other layers of homelessness that aren’t as visible, like students who don’t have stable housing or the “economically homeless.”
Conversations about both types of homelessness tie into larger issues of mental illness, substance abuse and poverty — each of which can be a difficult topic to address on its own.
That said, most experts agree that talking to kids about homelessness is about keeping it simple and compassionate. Some people choose to link an action to their words — either by carrying around hygiene kits or packaged food or water to hand out, or by volunteering to feed or clothe the homeless in their communities.
Death — As in, someone we love is dying or has died.
When it comes to death, there are practical matters and there are existential matters. You’ll likely need to be conversant in both. Whether it’s a pet fish or a primary family member, you will want to explain the situation simply, listen to and care for your child’s emotions and help quell the dread when he or she realizes that everyone they love will someday die.
Talking about death, it’s helpful to keep in mind, is often as much about talking about life.
If the death is pending, what are some meaningful ways to spend the time you have together? If the death was sudden or unexpected, what are some ways to honor that person’s memory? And do not forget the power of rituals.
Divorce — As in, our family is changing
Divorce doesn’t carry the stigma is did in, say, the '50s, or even as recently as a generation ago. There are plenty of role models for divorced couples who still plan to co-parent in a healthy, positive way. Call it the “happy divorce.”
In story about happy divorce for The National Post, Sabrina Maddeaux writes, “[T]he health and happiness of children is mostly influenced by the tone and after-effects of a split. Kids who experience stigma-less break-ups, maintain access to a binuclear family and are part of positive divorce and parenting strategies tend to fare just fine. Unsurprisingly, happy divorces also make for happier exes. Amicable splits routinely save both partners time, anxiety and money. As the saying goes, a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.”
That said, any change to a child’s family unit can be potentially devastating. Kids at different ages might interpret the split differently, so important to shape the conversation appropriately. And mostly, as much as possible, keep their best interest in mind.
Says Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D., author of Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex, "This isn't about you, it's about your children's emotional well-being."
Drugs — As in, here are the risks.
Maybe you find their stash. (Maybe they find yours.) Regardless, if someone’s holding the evidence, it’s high time (ahem) to discuss your values and beliefs about drugs, drug use and drug abuse. (And likely, it should have happened a bit earlier).
We know by now that the “Just Say No” approach has been debunked. And with the current prescription drug epidemic and legalized marijuana, today’s conversations around drugs need to be a bit more nuanced. What if you yourself smoke pot, in a state where it’s legal?
It’s easy to take a hard line on hard drugs — they’re illegal. For legal marijuana, it’s helpful to leverage the law, too. Like alcohol, there are laws governing how old you have to be to use it, in what capacity and what locations you can use it and what things you can and can’t do when you’re under the influence.
All of those things can be explained factually and dispassionately.
Beyond the basic facts, there are a constellation of issues surrounding drug use, drug abuse and addiction. If you want to be heard, base your conversations on facts, not fear. And if you need help preparing, here are age-by-age tips from Parents Magazine.
Pornography — As in, that’s not how sex really happens.
Online pornography is so readily available, it’s shaping a generation of teens’ notions of power, pleasure and intimacy.
That’s the central tenet of “What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn,” Maggie Jones’ lengthy New York Times Magazine feature on the topic. One simple line captures it all: “‘There’s nowhere else to learn about sex,’ the suburban boy told me. ‘And porn stars know what they are doing.’”
Even if you think your child hasn’t seen porn, he or she has. And as Jones’ story helps highlight, a little porn literacy can go a long way toward diminishing the power of porn to define what sex is, especially for a teen.
Still, this isn’t the talk most parents are prepared for. Psychologist and author Lisa Damour published some effective, down-to-earth tips in The New York Times. (One — watch some porn so you know what it’s actually like these days. Another — bring it up in the car, where no one has to make eye contact).
Money — As in, how we pay for all this
Why is being honest about money so hard? Kids ask seemingly simple questions — “How much money do you make?” — and adults can’t always muster an easy answer. The prevailing culture is that talking about money is seen as impolite, private or at least not the domain of children. But those beliefs can come back to bite you later on.
Enter Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, and the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times, who has some remarkably straightforward advice on the matter of kids and money.
In one column, Lieber describes a father taking out a month’s pay from the bank — around $10,000 in cash — and showing his children where all those dollars actually go. Ten thousand dollars seems incomprehensibly large, especially to younger children, and to see how little is left over after bills and groceries is a sobering exercise. What makes it powerful is that it’s concrete and visual. Keep in mind that most modern kids only see adults paying with debit or credit cards, or moving money with an app — modern money management is basically invisible.
That’s but one useful exercise. In another column, Leiber offers six ways to overcome your anxiety about talking to the kids about money. And if you can’t figure out how to have the conversation, you can start with a letter.
Inheritance — As in, where’s the will?
Along with being honest about money now comes being honest about finances long after you are gone.
Most teens don’t need all the gory details, unless one or both parents is older or infirm. But they should have a sense of general assets that will need to be managed, if your family is lucky enough to have such things.
Kiplinger calls it the family money talk you must have, and offers some savvy tips about negotiating the truly tough stuff, like leaving more money or assets to one child, or the politics of choosing one person, inside or outside the family, to be the executor.
The list goes on — As in, there is no shortage of touchy topics.
What if you get a cancer diagnosis? What if there’s a terrorist attack? What about dating, relationships or body image? What about politics?
Life serves up no shortage of tough issues that can leave teens and parents alike hemming and hawing and avoiding eye contact.
Every one of these conversations looks a little different in each family, but they can all benefit from a few governing forces.
- - Be prepared — whether that means digging up some research or simply articulating what you believe and feel about a topic (or a little of both).
- - Be age-appropriate — the 4-year-old conversation will look, feel and sound different from the 14-year-old conversation.
- - Be curious — find out what they already know.
- - Be humble — you don’t have to have the answer. Kids appreciate an honest, “I don’t know.”
- - Be patient — no worthwhile conversation about the kinds of values and beliefs happens quickly.