How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex, Death, Divorce and More
Kids say the darndest things. And the most uncomfortable things, and the weirdest things, and the most terrifyingly embarrassing things.
And then they start asking questions. As if being a parent isn't hectic enough, once those babes start talking, the questions and possible answers never end. Kids are curious, it's how they figure out life, and as the parent, it's your job to answer and guide.
Here, five conversations to have with your child before that blabber-mouth at the bus stop does.
When: If you haven't started the Santa Story yet then a big fat *phew*, you dodged this one. But, if the ball’s already rolling it’s wise to come clean when their friends start revealing the truth.
Why: Kids may be naïve but they’re not stupid. It may not seem like a big deal, but eventually it's going to occur to them that hey, mom and dad lied about something really dumb. What else are they keeping from us? Set a healthy foundation for communication with your children as early as possible and you'll reap the benefits in fifteen years.
How: If you haven't already been telling your kids about Santa (and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy) then this is a pretty easy transition. If they ask about these holiday-characters they're probably hearing about it on television or from their friends. An easy answer is, "In Luca's family they like to pretend that Santa gives them presents on Christmas, but in our family we know that it's really mom and dad." Let them know too that it's important to respect what Luca and his family believe and not to ruin it for Luca.
However, if you're trying to break the news to your own kid, a good idea is to wait until they hear it from some blabber-mouth-truth-teller and respond with, "It's true, mom and dad pick out your presents and Santa is just for pretend, but sometimes it's fun to make-believe." Your kids may be all about it or they may be upset. Whatever the case, accept their feelings and apologize if they're hurt by the truth.
Another approach would be to gently transition. Say "Dad and I got you some really awesome gifts this year," or "What do you want me to tell mom you want for Christmas?"
Separation and Divorce
When: As soon as the split becomes official—as in, you’re living in different homes.
Why: Kids know when something’s up, no matter how young they are. They’re incredibly in-tune with their parents and understand when there’s animosity between them. When the you-know-what hits the fan it’s time to hunker down and bring some resolution to the situation by explaining to your children what’s going on, this way you can minimize their fear and confusion.
How: First off, this isn’t the time to bash your partner. Diffuse the intensity of the subject by taking your kids for a walk or sitting down with a bowl of ice cream and then explain the situation. Tell them that their parents both love them but that they’re not going to be together romantically anymore. This’ll no doubt open up a flood of questions and emotions, and as the parent it’s your responsibility to comfort them in that, even while you yourself are reeling. Ask them how they feel and what they want to know about it. Chances are, the answer to this question will change daily. It’s okay to tell them that their parents fight too much (that’s probably apparent to them anyway) but that’s as far as the details need to go. Affairs, money problems, and addictions are grown-up stuff, and there's no reason to divulge these issues to your children right now. If you have kids in different age ranges you’ll find yourself needing to talk to them about the split separately at times, because separation is much different for a ten-year-old than it is for a three-year-old.
The Importance of Body Language
The physical language you use to communicate with your children is just as important as the verbal language you use. For children who respond well to physical affirmation and affection hold hands with your child while you walk and talk, carrying them, or even just stroke their arm to show that while they may feel a temporary disconnect or confusion, their connection with you is still incredibly strong.
For children who don't respond well to physical affirmation and affection hold back and allow them to lead the way and try other forms of non-physical connection like eye contact or simply nodding your head and positioning your body towards them (put down any books, tablets, phones, or projects) and show that you're completely present.
When: The goldfish dies.
Why: Because it's easier to start explaining death here than when you're dealing with the death of a loved one.
How: Get straight to the point. Goldie is not coming back, and it's very sad. Talk about how much fun Goldie had when she was alive, and how much you guys loved and took care of her. If your child has questions about death, answer them. If he doesn't, then don't press the subject, which will inevitably lead to the concern about the child's own mortality and that of his parents. If these tough subjects do come up, be truthful but gentle, always reassuring your child that you and he are going to live long and wonderful lives.
Death is dark, and it doesn't need to be sugar-coated, but it also doesn't need to be a great concern of any child. It's also a way to share your beliefs with your children. As often as the subject of death comes up with your kids, talk about the beauty in life, and how death is a part of the cycle so that they can view it as something that's not unnatural and scary, but as something that is very natural and peaceful.
When: Right away.
Why: As absolutely uncomfortable as the subjects of sexual and physical abuse are, it's so important to instill in your child a sense of autonomy As kids hit their toddler years, they become more curious and aware of their physical attributes. They begin to explore their bodies ask questions about the differences between boy and girl and so on--this is a great time to start the discussion. Helping them to understand that their body is for them and no one else will create boundaries early in life that will no doubt payoff into adolescence.
How: When children are very young (say, just as they're learning to speak) it's a good idea to remind them that their body is just for them. One way to do this is if you notice your little one starting to explore his or her self in the tub. I always remind my kids then that those parts are just for them to touch and that sometimes, with permission, the doctor will too - with mom by their side. Using anatomically correct language is important too, so that kids feel empowered to talk using the proper labels. This will also save you confusion later on. Another great resource, as always is books! There are some really great titles out there that will help you gracefully approach the subject without confusing your child. With the help of pictures and rhymes, you can talk to your child about what's appropriate and inappropriate, comfortable, and uncomfortable without creating a mistrust for all adults or embarrassing your child.
Also, reminding children that they don't have to give anyone a hug or kiss if they're not into it (this definitely includes parents, grandparents, and even siblings) is a surefire way to give them confidence that their consent is required for physical contact.
Where Babies Come From
When: As soon as they start asking.
Why: Basically, if they don't learn it at home, they'll end up hearing a version of it at school or their friend's house. It's a conversation that should start at home. And remember, when we adults thing babies, we think SEX and all that comes with it. Kid's don't. When they ask where babies come from, they're really asking a very basic, if not scientific question: How did I get here?
How: Books are going to be your very best friend when it comes to the baby-making talk. Look for illustrated children's books that gently approach the subject of reproduction. This way, kids can point to pictures, ask questions, and feel close to you in the process, instead of feeling shunned for asking. Making your child feel guilty or gross for asking about where babies come from means you're inadvertently projecting your own adult-thoughts about sex onto your kid. The trick here is to gauge what your child is actually asking and depending on the age they can be asking very different things.
Generally, kids start asking pretty young, especially if they’re about to become a big brother or sister. What’s important is not lying to your child. This breaks down trust and builds communication barriers over time. They did not come from some special land nor were they delivered by a bird.
That being said, getting into the whole, "when a man loves a woman" schpeel may be even more confusing to your child and for the most part, isn't necessary for a few more years (phew!) But right now, you're opening a door for communication that will eventually lead into the sex talk.
For right now, instead of focusing the conversation on the girl/boy dynamic, you can steer the conversation to babies and tummies—how babies grow in a woman’s tummy, and ask and answer questions from there. No one knows your child better than you, and as time goes on you'll be able to know when and how to share more details as need be.
Addressing Tough Subjects
Kids feed off their parent's anxieties, so choosing the right time and place to have a tough talk is vital to getting the most out of the conversation. Try an activity that is peaceful and familiar where you can interact one-on-one, like a walk on a favorite path, decorating cupcakes at home, or building a sandcastle on the beach. This way, your child can feel comfortable asking questions and having an emotional reaction and you can give your child a hug without embarrassing them (even little kids get embarrassed when they feel like they're going to cry). Avoid places that are busy or where your child will be distracted by other kids, like at restaurants, playgrounds, and malls and try not to have the conversation in a place where your child might feel infringed on, like their room, which should be sacred and void of adult stresses.
© 2013 Kierstin Gunsberg