For many parents and carers it is not unusual to have to ponder how to speak to children about difficult and complex issues. It can build up in our minds as a real problem, what if we get it wrong, what if we upset, confuse, scare or shock them? I have had to discuss some incredibly difficult things with my child in their 21 years on this planet and he has taught me a great deal, as have many of the children I have worked with.
There are a few key questions to ask ourselves before speaking with your child, and it is fine to say to your child when faced with a difficult subject, "well that's a really interesting question, I need to give that some serious thinking time, can we talk about it later?" Then ask yourself:
1. what are they really curious about?
2. what do they need to know and what don't they
3. what will have the least impact on their right to have a childhood as free as possible from adult worries and issues
4. how can I put it into language and at their level of understanding
5. is this all about their needs or am I partly doing it to make things easier for myself and/or others?
One thing I have learnt from children is that we often under estimate their ability to cope and over estimate their reactions. It is also worth remembering that they take a great deal of information about how to react from us. If we appear to be OK about what we are telling them, not too upbeat, not too sad then the is a good chance they will take it on board and get on with their life.
What often happens is we put too much adult emphasis on the wrong things and adult thoughts and feelings too and are often wide of the mark. "I'm sure she will be devastated when I say....., he's not going to react well when I say..........., I think she will be worried by....." The most important things are:
1. chose your time carefully, so not when you are about to go somewhere, or when you/they are very tired/have had a bad day
2. try not to make it into a huge event, part of our brain embeds memories according to the emotion we felt at the time. Turn it into a huge drama and it may be something which haunts them.
3. offer to do some research with them later on if they want to know more
4. keep it simple as children often don't want all of the facts right then, or ever
5. get support from some one you really trust beforehand and after but don't let it become something you tell everyone as your child may well find out and will be hurt and may not trust you again
6. use gentle humour when and only if it feels appropriate, " oh my goodness, aren't we serious today, I think I need a big hug, to run round the garden with my pants on my head, to tickle your teddy now" etc.
7. be aware that if you tell young children very adult things about sex, reproduction, intimate relationships they may repeat them and that will not always go down well and may get them unwanted attention.
I do not believe in lying to children as often they know what is going on does not feel right and may have seen and heard things. For example, living with domestic abuse and violence often no one talks with the child about it, or minimises or denies what is going, on thinking they are protecting them, they are not. When there is a serious illness, a potential relationship break up, a house move, a change of foster carer, children will often have an idea and will be fretting and writing their own script which most often involves them as the villain. "It's all my fault Mum gets hurt as I didn't tidy my toys away properly, I think they are going to split up so where will I live or maybe they won't want me now, another foster carer why does no-one want me aren't I good enough?"
It rarely seems easy to discuss these things with our children but taking your time, not building it up, keeping it simple and most importantly LISTEN TO THEM. It may be that you have misunderstood what they wanted to know and start to tell them about the 'birds and the bees' when this was the last thing on their minds so tread carefully, pause to listen frequently and check how they might be feeling. "I wonder how you feel about it?" rather than "you must be feeling......now" or, if they don't seem to know how they feel gentle suggestions, "well I think I might feel a bit.........what do you think?"
Be prepared for it to be a bit of an anti-climax as children will often take a speck of information and ponder it and may come back to you on it or want to be gently asked about it later, next day etc. Or, sometimes that's enough, you can always check and they will soon let you know.
Good luck, you are their best resource and the person who loves them most so you will be able to work it out together so long as you are fully tuned in to them. There is a wealth of knowledge out in the big wide world on most subjects now and organisations for most things, so do your research or find a lovely story book if that helps too.