Every parent grapples with the best way to respond to those difficult questions that inevitably pop up as children get older. It is often hard to develop an explanation that will provide accurate information and be appropriate to your child's age and maturity level. And let's face it, sometimes certain questions are just plain uncomfortable.
Yet parents are the best resource a child has. Experts agree that developing an established pattern of open communication right from the start can give your son or daughter a healthy base of security and the ability to make sound decisions in the future. But, if parents communicate the message that "you can't talk to me about that," children will seek for their answers elsewhere.
There may be no perfect answer for every question your son or daughter asks. But, here are some guidelines that can help you address these questions with confidence.
Establish a habit of open communication at the beginning of your child's life. Even before they can properly phrase a question, explain things to them constantly. Simply hearing language encourages vocabulary and communication. Children's first questions often consist of a couple of words. Instead of responding with a simple yes or no, respond with an explanation using full sentences.
For example, in response to the question "Go bye-bye?" you might say, "Yes, it's time to go to the store. We need to pick up some food for dinner. Do you want to help mommy?" Frequent dialogue throughout these formative years will encourage healthy communication patterns. In addition, children learn that parents are a resource for having their questions answered.
Focus on what your child is saying and asking. Eye contact is key to letting your child know you are listening. Children will be drawn to whomever they perceive as taking an interest in them. If they sense that their parents don't have time, are not interested, or are uncomfortable answering their questions, they will stop asking.
Amanda, age 16, states, "I hate it when I ask my mom a question and she just keeps working on her computer. I get mad at her and she tells me she's still thinking, and she'll get back to me. But she never does." In addition to carefully focusing on the question, also take note of what they are not asking. This can be helpful in understanding them better.
A child's innocence is often reflected through their questions. Questions like "Where do babies come from?" and "Is grandpa going to die?" are questions that deserve an honest answer, yet many adults are tempted to give false or vague answers in an effort to protect the child from the truth.
Children are seeking to make sense of their world. Even though the reality of life is sometimes difficult for anyone to face, giving children false information only confuses their sense of reality and creates distrust. Eventually they will be faced with the truth. Consider their age, experience, and maturity. Ask them what they already know to give youself a starting point. Then, present them with an honest and developmentally appropriate answer.
Do not be afraid to say "I don't know the answer to that question" when it is the most honest response. Then discuss how you can explore the answer together.
Balancing the truth and your child's stage of development can be a challenge. Children learn best when they can base new information on existing knowledge. Therefore when you are answering your child's question, consider what is already familiar. This can be a guide as you explain the answer.
To be effective, you need to be a credible source. If your child is asking questions about topics like sex and drugs, be sure you are well informed. Your advice will be most credible in the eyes of your child when you give them accurate and current information. Do not just rely on your own experiences and/or personal assumptions. Investigate the facts. If you need time to do this, be honest, and let your child know that you need to get more information. Children will respect your perspective more when they know it is based on facts and that you care enough to invest time in them as well as their questions.
Janelle, a mother of two girls, Morgan, age 6 and Elli, age 8, learned this lesson first hand. At age 6, Morgan approached her mother with the question "What is a rapist?" She thought carefully, then responded by telling her that a rapist is someone who touches you where you do not want to be touched. Morgan seemed satisfied with this explanation. The following morning as Morgan was saying goodbye to her mother, she said "Bye Mommy, I hope no one rapes your eyes today." At that point Janelle realized that her explanation was not clear and had been misunderstood. Over the next several months, Janelle began explaining the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual experiences. With this as a background, Janelle was able to give a more clear explanation of a rapist. It is tempting to give vague explanations when we are unsure of what children know and understand. You could begin by asking your child what they think the answer is. This can help guide parents in giving a more clear explanation.
Children need time to process information and will do it in their own way. Sometimes the questions they ask trigger a great deal of emotion and parents become eager for the child to respond in a certain way to the information they have given. If you add pressure to think in a specific way, your child will most likely resist. It is best to offer suggestions and further questions instead of telling them how to process the information.
Growing up is difficult. A child's perspective is often very different than a parent's perspective and each child is an individual. Take time to consider the child's point of view. Think about individual temperament, circumstances, relationships, and other factors. All of these issues affect the child's development. Children need to feel that they are understood, even when they cannot understand themselves.
BAM! Body and Mind—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Agency of Canada
Talking about tough topics. PBS Parents website. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/strategies_10.html. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Talking with kids about tough issues. Children Now website. Available at: https://www.childrennow.org/parenting-resources. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Talking with your kids about tough issues. Talk With Your Kids website. Available at: http://talkwithkids.org . Accessed June 30, 2017.
Last reviewed June 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 6/30/2017