It’s normal for you and your child to feel uncomfortable talking about tough topics like divorce, illness, death, adoption, sex and world disasters. But talking about tough topics helps to build your relationship with your child. It also helps your child make sense of the world.

Why it’s good to talk about tough topics

Divorce, illness, death, adoption, sex – they’re all part of life. Talking about tough topics is one way you can help your child deal with life’s difficulties.

If you encourage open communication about tough topics, your child learns that she can always talk to you. She’ll understand that you’ll be there to listen if something is worrying her. If your child gets this message when she’s little, you have a solid base for communication as she heads into the teenage years.

You’ll also be supporting your child’s brain development and the beginning of his independence. Talking about these topics with your child is part of building a warm, loving relationship with your child. And this relationship supports your child’s brain development by strengthening your child’s ability to think, solve problems, communicate and get along with other people.

Talking about tough topics with your child also gives you a chance to explain the values and beliefs that are important to your family.

Talking about tough topics can be important for your child’s wellbeing. For example, children who can talk about their adoption have better self-esteem and fewer difficulties than children who can’t. This might be because adoptive parents are able to talk openly with their adopted children about adoption, and children learn from this.

Talking about tough topics at different ages

You might think that talking about things like sex, death or divorce will upset your child. In fact, she’ll probably be glad to get things off her chest. But the way you handle tough topics might depend on your child’s age and how she makes sense of the world.

If you can tune in to what’s going on in your child’s life you’ll know when to raise a topic. For example, you might want to talk about what he’s hearing or seeing at child care, on TV, online or from older siblings, especially if you think it might be worrying him.

If your child is a toddler or preschooler, you might talk about topics to help your child learn about the world when something sad happens. For example, you might say to a two-year-old child, ‘Grandma has died and we won’t see her anymore. I’m very sad’.

If your child is at school, she might hear about tough topics from her friends or at school. It’s also likely that your child will see and hear news, current affairs, celebrity gossip and social media discussions about tough topics on TV, radio and online.

It might be worth keeping in touch with hot media topics. This way, you’ll have some idea of what your child is hearing, and you can be prepared if he brings it up with you.

If you’re aware of what your child is seeing and talking about at school and elsewhere, you can raise these topics before she asks about them. And this gives you the chance to guide your child through sad or difficult topics – for example, the death of a classmate.

For a seven-year-old you might say, ‘Death means not living anymore, like the flowers die so they don’t grow anymore. Or the dog died so he doesn’t eat and play anymore. All living things die some time’.

Watching movies, online videos and TV shows with your child can give you a way to start a conversation about tough topics with your child. Our child-friendly movie reviews give you classifications, age ratings, information about what might concern children of different ages.

Topics you have trouble with

There might be things that you find really difficult to talk about, maybe because of your own background or your cultural and religious values. That’s OK and normal. If this sounds like you, you could consider talking to your partner or a friend about why some issues are difficult for you.

If you get distressed when talking or thinking about tough topics, talk to your GP or health professional. For example, if you’ve been through a traumatic event, you might find that talking about similar topics upsets you. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114 or a parenting hotline.

It’s important to talk about tough topics. If your child doesn’t understand the facts in a way that he can make sense of, he might imagine things that are far worse than the truth.

Managing tough conversations

It’s a good idea to think about tough topics before your child asks. Then you’ll be prepared when a tough topic comes up.

Here are some tips for handling these difficult conversations:

  • Tell your child sad or scary family news like illness, death or divorce yourself if you can, rather than asking someone else to. If you can’t, it’s OK for someone who knows your child well to talk to your child – for example, your partner. This also goes for events that might really affect your child – for example, world disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis. Talk to your child as soon as you can after the event.
  • If there’s time to plan ahead, choose a time when you’re both relaxed. If you can, choose a private and comfortable place to talk.
  • Explain simply and think about your child’s age when explaining tough topics like death.
  • Be honest and truthful. For example, ‘When people get divorced, it means they don’t live together anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you any more’.
  • Come back to the topic. Your child needs time to understand. Let her know that she can ask you questions. You might want to mention the topic again in a week if it hasn’t already come up.
  • Really listen to your child after you’ve started the conversation. Make eye contact and get down to your child’s level. You might find it useful to say his feelings back to him to check that you understand what he’s saying.
  • Be calm. Your child will often copy your reaction to sad or difficult topics, so stay calm. But it’s also OK to have feelings and to let your child know what they are.
  • Use a past event to help your child understand a more recent one. For example, if discussing a recent bushfire, you might talk with your child about what happened after the Black Friday bushfires. You could reassure her by focusing on how people coped and worked together to rebuild.
Storybooks can often be good conversation starters for kids of all ages. If you need ideas for books, you could talk to a librarian at your local library or school library, or to your child’s preschool, kinder or school teacher. You could also search online.

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Last updated or reviewed
22-07-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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