Having Conversations About Difficult Topics

In the midst of a pandemic, we are also witnessing a historic uprising and, if you are a parent or a teacher, you might not know how to start talking to children about complex and painful topics. It might feel impossible to begin a conversation about challenging issues, like racism, violence, drugs, sexuality, and diseases, especially to children who have never been exposed to these issues before.

With all of us being in quarantine since mid-March, we don’t have the normalcy of being in a classroom where open discussions are encouraged. However, this can still be done in the comfort of your own home with your children or virtually with your students.

Both parents and teachers face difficulties discussing heavy topics, because sometimes, they fear they don’t know the right things to say. However, in this day and age, technology is a constant for children and teens, and it is so easy for them to find news stories that might be fake or too complicated to understand.

This past week, with the Black Lives Matter protests in mind, I had conversations with my students about racism and social justice. My lessons were met with mixed feelings of discomfort, confusion, sadness, and eagerness to talk. These were feelings I expected and welcomed. It allowed them to process and ask questions.

There are some ways you can approach your conversations, but these are a few that have helped me, and I thought might be useful to you as well.

Create a safe space for discussion

Many children might shy away from talking about difficult topics. Some reasons could be that they are unsure of how to express their thoughts or they are unable to understand the way they feel. You can help by simply saying, “I’m here for you whenever you’re ready to talk,” or, “I know this is a hard topic to talk about, but let’s just talk.”

If your student or child is scared or confused, acknowledge their feelings and tell them that it’s okay to feel that way. Assure them by using phrases like, “It’s OK to feel sad or scared.”

Address their curiosity

Ask your student or child if they know what is going on in the world. Let them explain to you what they’ve read about or heard from family, friends, or classmates. If they stumble upon online articles or videos, ask questions about what they found and answer other questions they might have. They might want to research serious topics, so help them look up reliable resources or watch the news together, explaining the information as you go.

Facilitate an open discussion

Let your child or student talk to you about what they’ve heard or how they’re feeling without judging or projecting your bias. Help them understand what’s going on with age-appropriate language and also provide examples from your life if you have had similar experiences. This will help them relate to you and put current events into context.

Also, try to break down issues in simple language. This advice is more relevant to younger kids, but it is so important to keep in mind as it helps them better understand what’s going on.

Discuss their sources of information

Many children get their information from watching what their parents are watching on television or listening to what their older siblings are talking about. For older children, they turn to social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok for information. Some of these sources might be opinion-based, like a friend or influencer posting what they think is right as opposed to what is neutral or true. Some news stories can be biased and targeted to a specific demographic that might not be appropriate for children. Explain to them that verifying their sources is key in understanding the truth about important issues.

Encourage critical thinking

It’s easier to have a conversation about difficult topics without analyzing its impact, but encouraging children to discuss further is so important. Ask questions such as: “What did you think about this?”, “How does this make you feel?”, “What do you want to know more about?”, or “How can I help you understand?”

For older students, thinking critically might mean considering the complexities of difficult subjects, such as social issues, sexuality, violence, crime, and so on. Teenagers are at the point in their lives when they are figuring out their identity and trying to understand what verified information looks like, so encouraging them to work on their critical thinking skills will undoubtedly serve them now and in the future.

Respect other people’s opinions

Teaching children how to respect other people’s opinions is crucial. Not everyone is going to have the same opinion or stance, so make sure you explain this to them. Having their own beliefs and stand on issues is fine as long as they are respectful of other people’s differences of opinion, especially about issues that bring up strong emotions.

 

As difficult as these conversations can be, they are not impossible. They are vital to a child’s development and understanding of what is going on around them. It helps them make sense of the world they live in, so they are better informed. Now, I want to highlight some articles that I found thought-provoking and informative:

  • For help on ways to discuss Social Justice, here is a great post by Charmaine highlighting some useful teaching resources that you can use at home. 
  • For age-appropriate discussions about social movements like the Black Lives Matter movement, check out this awesome PDF by Laleña Garcia. 
  • For conversations about sexuality, check out this Psychology Today article by Iben Sandahl.
  • For conversations about violence, crime, and war, check out this article by Caroline Knorr.

As always, remember these difficult subjects will be uncomfortable to talk about with your children or students, but if they weren’t, we’d never talk about them in the first place. Talking to kids about these topics increases their awareness and understanding. It helps them form their own opinions and allows them to develop critical-thinking approaches, evaluate arguments, and find possible solutions, especially during unprecedented times like these.

Resources

Garcia, Laleña. Talking to Young Children about the Guiding Principles of the Movement for Black Lives. National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action Committee. Accessed June 2nd, 2020 via https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bQm0fIWqKTQOONJLnAF81xqj04z-QjAu/view.

Knorr, Caroline. (2019). How to Talk to Kids About Violence, Crime, and War. Common Sense Media. Accessed June 2nd, 2020 via https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-violence-crime-and-war.

Sandahl, Iben. (2018). 7 Guidelines for Talking to Your Child About Sexuality. Psychology Today. Accessed June 8th, 2020 via https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-danish-way/201804/7-guidelines-talking-your-child-about-sexuality.

The Literary Tutor. “Resources for Teaching Social Justice”. Instagram. June 1st, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CA5nHy7gFD1/?ig.

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The Literary Tutor

We are English tutors helping students ignite their imagination through reading and discover their unique voice through writing.

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