DO's and DON'Ts - Having difficult conversations with your children
What story DO you tell your children?
I have had conversations with moms who wonder what to tell their children about their miscarriages or other losses. I have also questioned how much do I tell my 3 & 5 year old about my divorce with their father? How do we make a good judgement about IF we should say anything or WHAT to say when they ask?
First of all, If you are asking yourself this question, chances are you are cautious and intentional about your little ones and that says SO much to me about where you are at with this topic. Good job! You are going to figure this out. It takes some trial and error, but I believe you will find the right way to talk about your story to your children.
But if you would like some tips, this is what I have learned ...
- DO talk about hard things! Here is a fact: Children see more than we think or want them to. They are intuitive. They know when you are upset or anxious. They hear your grown up conversations and they listen to things at school, church or every other place. But for many parents talking to their children about hard or even terrible things feels like we are not protecting them.
What I'd love for you to consider is making a shift in how you see protecting your sons and daughters. Is it protecting them when they hear something but are not given the space to process the HUGE emotions that come up? Is it protecting them when they face a similar situation down the road? Is it protecting them by creating a reality in your home that looks nothing like the world outside?
I often wondered what I should tell my little ones about the 4 children I miscarried before my son was born? Would it hurt them too much to talk about death at the (then) age of 2 and 3? And what should I tell my beautiful children when they ask for mommy and daddy to live together again? What should I say to my daughter when she asks why I am crying in front the TV looking at protests, unlawful deaths, natural disasters, homelessness, abuse and so much more? What do I say to my son when he asks me if boys ever kiss boys?
These are all questions I have had to ask myself and sometimes I'm only given a few seconds to decide what to say or if I should say anything at all. But this is what I had to realize, my children ARE aware of so much! They knew that I made jewelry for babies, they knew mom and dad stopped being together, they see tears streaming down my face more and more often as I weep for the world. They see, they hear, they notice. And although for many years I thought someone would show up and tell me when to say things, I realized there is no play book for parenting and the best thing to do is commit to telling my children hard things. I made the commitment to not ignore hard questions or difficult realities, but to address them head on. In doing so I created a space to process the confusing and often ugly realities in the world. I am protecting them by talking about things that I can't protect them from. My most recent example was on Columbus Day when I didn't skirt around the difficult topic of racism. I told William all of the facts, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Which leads me to my next point ...
- DON'T give too much detail - The details are what takes even more discernment. The details change with each passing year. The details matter less at first and they matter more when children are mature enough to process several feelings at the same time.
Here is where I am going to stop and give some warning. I really want you to keep having hard conversations. Keep talking about the things you would rather not talk about. Tell your children about evil and hurt and bad things. Don't stop talking, but remember that it is the details of those things that are what you need to stop and think about. DO talk about death and loss, but DON'T talk in graphic detail that would give your children nightmares. DO talk about natural disasters, but DON'T show them all of the videos. DO talk about stealing and murder and corruption, but DON'T make it too personal. DO talk about hunger, and war and homelessness. DO talk about sickness and mental issues. DO talk about racism and sexism. But use caution in the details used. My son and daughter are currently 5 and 3 respectively, so you can imagine that I use very VERY little detail, but I don't shy away from big concepts. When I open up the door to talk about big and hard things, they learn from me that nothing is too difficult to process and that home is a safe place with which to view a harsh and sometimes scary world. I can set the tone for our family, but they don't walk away unable to process what they see.
- DO focus on feelings (yours and your children's). Here is where I spend most of my time with my children and I feel like this will never change that much. I think that it matters less that we rehash the world, its history, its themes and the struggles of our society. Most of it JUST IS. It is out of our control. So what I do focus on is how things feel when we talk about Christopher Columbus. How do you feel about losing your siblings? How does it feel when you hear that mommy and daddy can't live together anymore? How does it feel when you see the homeless man on the corner smile at you and ask you for money? How do you think he feels? Which do you wish would happen instead?
I want my children to be able to process all of their feelings. The world is NOT how I would want it to be. I don't want to raise my children in a world that feels scary and unpredictable. But accepting this reality is the first step, talking to them about reality is the second, and giving them tools to process is the biggest piece I can give them as a parent. I do not need to inform them about what to think about it. I don't need to give them actions to follow up ... All of that comes from them when they are able to process hard things and decide how they feel about it. More often than not they ask me if we can give the homeless man some food. They ask me if I can make them a piece of jewelry for their lost siblings. They ask me if instead of living with their dad if they can draw him a picture and mail it to him. The handle hard things SO well, better than I do just by holding this emotional space for them. It is an amazing process!
Ok last tip!
- DON'T place blame. I think this tip is driven by wisdom I've learned through my parent's divorce many years ago, but I feel like it applies to almost all hard conversations. Placing blame is making a conclusion about the story and in a way projecting or imposing it on your children. Like I said in my last point, I think children are really good at drawing their own conclusions and actions after they process their feelings. Try to avoid doing this work for them. It is very hard when you feel strongly about a recent election, divorce, break up, or almost any conflict you see on the news. But placing blame is a short cut to your children's ability to process the world around them. Let them figure it out for themselves.
DO talk about hard things
DON'T give too much detail
DO focus on feelings
DON'T place blame
How about you? What DOs and DON'Ts have you learned about a parent or teacher? Leave a comment!