How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Children
What is the most difficult conversation you’ve had with your child lately?
Or maybe you have one on the horizon you’ve been putting off.
There’s no way to raise a child from infancy to adulthood without facing conversations you’d rather avoid. Maybe it’s about a specific behavior your child is exhibiting or maybe something they’ve done that needs to be addressed.
It might even be about disappointing news they’re not going to want to hear.
Regardless of the topic, these moments can fill us with dread and loom over us until we deal with them.
And although it’s tempting sometimes to put our head in the sand and hope the situation resolves itself or just wait it out which is usually ineffective. It also tires us out as we hope for the supposed positive outcome we want to find right around the corner.
So instead of dragging out the inevitable and treating these conversations as moments of opposition, there are steps we can take to make them a little less daunting, maybe even a positive moment in our relationships with our kids.
Here are a few suggestions for turning the tables on what our kids normally expect when we say “we need to talk.”
Make the Conversation Special
No matter what the topic, the universal suggestion for dealing with difficult topics is to take the conversation out of the normal routine. If we make the dialogue less confrontational and more relational, our results are bound to be better.
Here are some suggestions to set the table for a better conversation from beginning to end.
Pick the Right Time
Don’t address problems in the middle of a heated situation. Nothing goes well at those times. Have these discussions when both you and your child are in a good place, both physically and mentally.
Have you ever been having a tough day, running around like crazy only to have someone interject with “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“No,” you want to say. “Can’t you see this is not a good time?”
But often we acquiesce, even though we’re in the completely wrong frame of mind. And we know from our own experiences these conversations usually end badly, at least for us emotionally.
For conversations with our kids, this means setting aside time for the discussion, not just bringing up the topic on the drive home from school or when they’re tired after finishing homework or frustrated after losing a soccer game.
The most important takeaway here is to make sure you don’t try to solve this problem at a time when your child is already having a difficult time, whatever the reason.
Choose a Conducive Location
If we can change the initial dynamic of our tough dialogues from an adversarial beginning to a setting that makes everyone more comfortable, we’re miles ahead to begin.
Choose a physical location for your conversation that your child might consider more “grown up,” like a coffee shop or favorite sit down restaurant.
Moving the discussion out of the house puts you on different footing and gives it more seriousness. It takes it out of the realm of a regular “lecture” your child might expect and lowers their initial resistance.
Since kids fall along a continuum of spontaneous to organized, you determine whether to let them know the plans ahead of time or just do it at the spur of the moment when it seems like it would work well.
Be sure to make this a time for just the two of you. No siblings to distract you. Just you and your child solving a problem together.
Be Empathetic Throughout the Conversation
Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes
Would you have enjoyed a conversation like the one you need to have with your parent when you were a child? Would you have been completely comfortable talking about the topic at hand with the adult in your life?
I didn’t enjoy those kinds of conversations when I was a child, and I bet you didn’t either so approach your topic gently so your child will be as receptive as possible.
For a specific example of how this technique can be used on a touchy subject, see 3 Rules for Tween Hygiene.
Use a Prompt to Let Your Child Express Their Feelings First
When you get past the small talk and start the real conversation, take a step back and let your child take the lead.
Instead of working out a script in your head that you’re ready to plow right into, start with a question to give your child a chance to start the discussion with their words.
For example, you could use phrases like:
“I was thinking about our argument the other night and wondering how you felt about what had happened.”
“I wanted us to have some time to talk about how we’re having such a tough time getting out the door in the morning and see if you have any ideas about why that’s happening.”
“We need to make some changes in our family’s spending and we may have to cut some things out. I wanted to ask you what activities you’re in are most important to you.”
Whether the discussion is about behavior, disappointing news or anything else you know your child is going to have a tough time with, allowing them to start off expressing their opinion shows you value their input. It also tells them the conversation isn’t going to be “just another lecture” they have to sit through.
Give Your Child As Much Input as Possible
When you get past the initial opening of the conversation, set it up as a negotiation where your child has as much input as possible. This will result in more ownership on their part and stronger “buy in.”
If the conversation is just you telling your child how things “have to be,” it’s effectiveness will probably be about the same as every other time you’ve tried to get things on the right track. It’s easy for us to repeat the same message over and over then wonder why our child isn’t motivated to change their behavior.
Tell them you want their ideas on how to make this easier. The more they’re suggesting ideas and making decisions, the more likely the plan will succeed.
Work Toward a Mutually Acceptable Conclusion
Both of You Take Notes
Bring a couple of notebooks with you and have each of you write down thoughts and note about what you consider most important. During intense conversations, it’s easy lose track of important points being made.
Additionally, perspectives on what’s important can vary, so having each party write down what stands out to them ensures a more accurate reconstruction of everyone’s thoughts.
And also, it may help a younger child participate in the conversation in a more grown up manner. Taking notes is something kids see adults doing or their older siblings at school, so if you’re dealing with a child who likes to do things in a way that seems more serious, this might give you a little edge.
Agree On Next Steps
When you’ve neared the end of the conversation and are ready to wind things up, go back through the main points you’ve agreed upon and make sure you both understand things the same way.
Write these down as actionable steps so both of you know what happens next.
This whole, wonderful set up and discussion will have been for naught if you leave without a plan going forward.
The result of this encounter should be for each of you to know, at least in theory, what things will look like in regard to the situation at hand, what I like to call “mostly better.”
Be Realistic About Results
Now, like every piece of parenting advice you get from me or anyone, remember we’re looking for improvement, not perfection.
If you’re expecting this one conversation to magically solve the problem at hand, that’s unrealistic. Depending on the circumstances and the child, this might be only the beginning of an ongoing dialogue on the topic.
But having the initial conversation out of the way and done in a manner to at least gets the issue out in the open makes it easier to move forward and continue progressing toward a resolution.
So put a little forethought into planning the discussion you’ve been needing to have with your child and see if it helps.
And if these tips work for you with your kids, give them a modified try with the adults in your life who you need to work through issues with. Because adults are just grown up kids, right?
Please leave a comment if you have any other suggestions on ways you’ve dealt with difficult situations with your kids. We can all use more guidance to get us through tough parenting times.