Little Kids, Big Issues: How to talk about difficult topics with children

30 OCT 2020

Recently, a graphic video of a person dying by suicide was circulated on social media. The video was initially streamed on Facebook Live and then shared to other platforms including YouTube and TikTok. Unfortunately, the video is not the first of its kind. Since the rise of social media, videos of distressing content have made their way to audiences, including young children, often by being embedded in clips that are otherwise seemingly innocent.

In terms of protecting children, parental controls can be helpful but should not be relied on to completely safeguard against distressing content that may slip through algorithms and into the hands of children. Lifeline WA children’s counsellor Naomi Weir explains that children can be exposed to big issues and distressing content through traditional media too. “Even if they haven’t seen it with their eyes, kids can be listening while we watch the news or overhear conversations from other children at school,” she says. As much as parents and caregivers would like to protect children from all distressing content, sometimes this is just not possible.

However, one solution Naomi offers is to encourage a relationship of open communication so adults can be there for children to come to when they have worries on their mind. “We may not be able to protect them from everything, but we can establish a safe space that encourages kids to open up about their feelings when they may have seen or heard something that they shouldn’t have,” she says. Sometimes children know that they need to discuss something difficult with an adult but may lack the skills required to initiate a tough conversation. “An effective way to tackle this is by giving kids a card or an object they can use to invite conversation,” Naomi explains. “When they need to talk, kids can place it on the kitchen table or any pre-agreed spot in the house, so adults see it and know to come talk to them about whatever is on their mind.”

Adults may be hesitant about discussing big issues or distressing content with children. Naomi advises that it is ok to talk about difficult topics with children as they arise, as long as it is in a way that is appropriate for the individual child. “It is important for adults to consider their responses, making sure that answers are always child friendly and age appropriate,” she says. By adults ensuring they are not shutting down conversations or forbidding discussions on difficult topics, they can increase the chances of children having appropriate conversations and gaining answers from more reliable sources. Welcoming conversation also provides more opportunities for adults to hear children’s concerns and to reassure them before those concerns have the chance to manifest.

When discussing difficult topics with children, Naomi suggests a child-led approach. “It is important not to enter into a conversation with your own assumptions on how they should be feeling,” she says. “Sometimes kids aren’t as affected as we think they will be.” Naomi recommends aiming for answers that are short, clear and to the point. “Make sure your content is relevant to their questions and try not to overload them with too much detail,” she explains. “Pay close attention to children’s cues – kids will usually let you know when they’ve heard enough.” Once adults have provided answers, it can be helpful to ask children if they feel their questions have been answered, or if they have any more questions. Naomi encourages adults to let children guide them on what information they are seeking. It is also helpful to remember that children may not need all the answers in one conversation, and adults should not feel pressured to cover the whole topic in one go. Naomi explains that sometimes kids just need to feel validated and heard. “It is important for them to know that they can come to adults whenever they are feeling anxious,” she says. A child might not have all their questions ready straight away either and some topics may be something that they process over time. It can be helpful for adults to create a relationship where children feel safe to come to them with questions as they arise.

Answering tough questions and talking about big issues can be hard for adults too. Naomi explains “it’s also ok to not know how to answer a question, or to need more time to feel comfortable talking about something”. Sometimes big issues need dedicated time to come up with an appropriate response. “Adults can tell kids that they need to have a think and come back to them, but we need to always make sure we do come back and maintain that relationship of trust and communication,” Naomi says. If adults are really struggling to approach a particular topic, Naomi encourages a self-assessment to determine why they may be feeling hesitant and to make sure they are okay by talking about their concerns or seeking advice from a mental health practitioner if required.

If you, or someone you know, is finding a particular topic distressing please call Lifeline for support 13 11 14.

Written by Liz Schleicher

Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash