Many adults struggle in communicating with their children. Talking with a child is an even bigger problem when dealing with "sensitive issues." Some subjects may embarrass us because of what they are about. Other topics intimidate us because of how little we know about them. Sometimes, our desire to protect a child's innocence makes us hesitate to raise some subjects or to answer a child's questions about them.
It is not always possible to protect children from unpleasantness, no matter how hard we try. A child could be exposed to negative, risky, or dangerous situations at any time in his life. This exposure could take place anywhere, including places where a child should be safe - at school, at the homes of friends or relatives, or even in his own home. The threat could be from violence or abusive acts. It could come from offers of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Children also are exposed to emotional hurt, such as the pain and grief that follow a divorce or death in the family or other serious loss. A child's best defense in situations like these is to be prepared. A parent or trusted adult is the best resource and teacher.
Let your child know exactly what is expected in different situations. Teach her what to say, what to do, and where to go. Help her understand that someone who does not respect her decision or choice may not be the best person to be around - even someone she likes and trusts. If your child loses a friend because she takes a stand on a matter, offer her sympathy to the child but do not criticize the lost friend.
Television, newspapers, movies, and even books and magazines can present openings for discussions. Crimes and acts of violence occur in every community. Do not ignore or try to cover up a situation in your neighborhood. Talk about it. Ask your child what he thinks and feels and reassure him as much as possible about his own safety. Try to avoid letting younger children see too many news reports about violence. Violence that gets a lot of media attention could make your child feel vulnerable and threatened, even when your family or community is not directly affected.
Some behaviors can be very frightening to parents - especially when tobacco or marijuana and other illegal drugs are involved. In such a situation, discuss the issue when you are not upset. It is important to have your child's attention and to be able to watch her reaction. She may not readily accept what you say. She may disagree that the behavior - for example, smoking marijuana - could be harmful. She may argue that it's "no problem," or that everyone is doing it, or that it is not affecting her grades. Listen to her opinion, but give her the facts. Be ready to back them up. Talk about your concerns for her welfare. Be sure your child understands your position on the issue.
Children need time to think things through and get used to a new idea, especially when they don't agree with you. Don't argue. Once you have presented the facts and your position, do not switch sides just because your child is unhappy with you. He may not say it, but he will respect you for staying firm. Just be ready and available for a discussion if the topic comes up again.
There could be a time when your child is dealing with a difficult matter and comes to you in a round-about way. If you are sensitive to your child's moods and behaviors, you will not miss these signals. Your child could be having problems in a relationship or with decision-making. She may need you to provide guidance. She also might want you to help with or get involved in some unpleasant situation. (See our article "Be a Better Listener."
You don't have all the answers, and it's okay to say so.
Mark specializes in Individual, Couples, and Family Therapy. He also has expertise in dealing with a broad range of issues from Anxiety and Depression to Anger and Stress Management.
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