How to Explain Grownup Things to Kids
Sensitive subjects are a part of grownup life. It’s our unfortunate job as parents to do our best job at translating real life in a way that doesn’t scar our kids for life.
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Sensitive subjects are a part of grownup life.
Family pets (or even relatives) pass away, parents fight (or even get divorced), and every night on the news there’s a cacophony of sins that, were they actually paying attention, would send any rational third grader to hide under their bed. (On some nights I might join them.)
It’s our unfortunate job as parents to do our best job at translating crappy, no good, very bad real life into a vernacular that doesn’t scar our kids for life.
In a perfect world pets would live forever, we’d all be married to high school sweethearts (ick...thinkning back on the quality of my high school boyfriend...maybe let’s not go that far...maybe we’ll go for happily married), we’d never have to explain racism, genocide, or other atrocities to our kids, and life would perhaps be much more straightforward. That said, this is rarely the case.
It’s uncomfortable and awkward to broach “adult” topics with your kids, especially if you are still reeling from them yourself (try having a calm conversation minutes after having to google a child custody lawyer, plan a funeral, or deal with another one of life’s great tragedies), but that’s probably when your kids are going to need you the most.
So, let’s take a look at some tips to help you.
#1: State the Facts Rationally, but with Compassion
First and foremost, kids need to know what’s actually going on.
Beating around the bush, using confusing language to soften the blow, or other similar efforts to make hard topics easy on them might end up doing more harm than good.
A good example of this is discussing the issue of private areas, consent, and other physical safety measures with a toddler. (This is actually a task I am now in the throes of attempting to do...my masters in criminology did not prepare me for this, and I would like a refund please.)
Using confusing terminology (aka referring to boy parts as a “dingle dangle”, which one of my unnamed source’s parents actually did) is not going to help your kid understand an already-confusing topic.
State the facts. Do it politely, but be blunt and simple in your descriptions.
Telling a kid that their pet “left”, “went away”, or goodness forbid the darn “went to live on a farm” thing is going to confuse them and leave them feeling more unsettled. Say what happened simply, even if it makes you uncomfortable. They need the info before they can begin processing it.
#2: Ask How They Feel
A major life event is an even more significant change for a child.
Depending on what happened, their living situation might change, they could have to change their behaviors, familiar faces they’re used to seeing could disappear, or new people could suddenly come into their lives (aka new siblings). Try to remember that, however hard what’s happening is on you, you want to deal with their emotional state as well.
Step one was to give them the intellectual information they need, but step two is to give them the emotional security they could possibly need even more.
It’s normal for them to be upset and confused. Try to comfort them. Just remember to ask how they are feeling and actually listen to the answers.
#3: Don’t Undershare
They’ll probably have lots of questions, and it’s definitely ok to answer some of them, if not all.
You don’t have to go into detail if it’s not appropriate (or age-appropriate) to do so, but any questions that you do choose to answer, do it honestly and in a straight-forward way.
Also, don’t be afraid to show there are things you don’t know, things that make you sad/angry/uncomfortable too, or that you have human emotions as well. They don’t need you to be a perfect, robot-parent...they need you to model how to process a situation that’s way over their emotional competency level.
Any questions they have, answer them if you can. Take the time and don’t shy away from a discussion.
#4: Don’t Overshare
Remember, as much pain as you might be in, it’s not your children's job to comfort you. They may act alarmingly adult at times, but they are not your mini therapists.
Take comfort from their presence, and their soul, but don’t ask for it.
Try to keep your emotions in check. You can show them you have feelings, but don’t make them experience them with you.
Also, if whatever is happening is marriage-related, please don’t put them in the middle of a marital argument. If you’re divorced (or divorcing), try not to say anything negative about your ex in front of them.
Communicate the facts and show them you have feelings, but don’t place more burden on them than is absolutely necessary.
#5: Don’t Claim to Know the Future
Some of their questions might be about the future.
Many “adult” topics are especially unnervingBecause they bring about a certain level of nebulosity about what's happening next. It's natural to want to answer all of your kids questions, try to keep in mind that you should just guess.
Kids are incredibly literal beans sometimes and, if you hazard a guess without really knowing, there's a high chance that they could take it as a certifiable parent-fact. This could come around to bite you in the butt later.
It’s perfectly okay to tell them that you don’t know what the future will bring, but you do know that you will always love them, no matter what else happens.
#6: Be There for Them Continuously
Kids take a while to process things. Sometimes they may not really understand what's happening for a couple days, and then come back to you with a follow-up question (or nine).
Even though it's tempting to check a challenging conversation off our list and wash our hands of it, make sure your kids have an open conversation conduit to you if they need it. This doesn't mean you have to bring it up ad nauseam for the next month (in fact, please don’t), but it does mean that they should know they can come to you with questions and feel welcome if they do.
Overall, just be there for your kids and try to be sensitive to their emotional needs. They'll show you what may need you to do, so just listen and respond like the caring parent will know you are.
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About the Author
Founder | Contributor
Liz (or Dr. Mommy, as her toddler started calling her after learning what a PhD was) is the happily sleep-deprived mom of a baby boy (and professional raccoon noise impersonator), a sparkle-clad toddlernado, a teenage stepdaughter, the canine embodiments of Pinky and The Brain, and a rabbit of unusual size. During nights and naptimes, she uses her PhD in business psychology as an author, speaker, and consultant. She also serves as an executive and principal for three companies, two of which she co-founded with her very patient (and equally exhausted) husband.
My Motto: All I can control is how hard I work.
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