Sometimes parenting feels like a never-ending game of "Am I doing this right?" Oftentimes in our efforts to protect kids from the "grown-up stuff" we may think that delaying certain conversations is for the best. But there are actually things you shouldn't wait to talk to your kids about even if you think they may be too young, or you don't feel fully prepared to "go there" just yet.
In speaking with parenting and youth development expert, Deborah Gilboa, M.D.,(commonly known as Dr. G.), she notes that the best way to gauge whether your child is ready to have conversations about tough topics is, quite simply, if they ask. "If they ask, they’re ready to know and you can provide them with a developmentally appropriate answer." And, she notes, "none of these conversations are one-offs." You'll get lots of chances to discuss these topics with your kids, so don't worry too much about not doing a great job the first time around. The important thing is that you are the one they're coming to when they have questions. And the only way to ensure that is by opening up the lines of communication early.
Dr. Nina Tepper, a Los Angeles-based child and adolescent psychologist, notes the importance of this particularly for children who have access to the internet. In an email to Romper, she states: "Kids who have access to the internet will Google whatever you are unwilling to explain. If you don't answer their questions with honest, reassuring information, they will get it from unsafe, unreliable sources."
So what should we should be discussing with our kiddos? The five topics below are some of the most common ones parents feel they should delay addressing, but actually, as these experts note, it's important for them to be discussed early on (depending on your individual kid's sensitivities and development, of course).
Yes, it's uncomfortable to discuss sex with your children, but as Dr. G. notes, whether you realize it or not, "We start talking to them about modesty, and privacy, and touching your own body at a young age and all of those things are part of the sex conversation." Any parent of a child who seems obsessed with their penis can attest to this. What you don't want, she adds, is to make it a taboo subject so that they get the sense there's something "forbidden" about sex and then won't come to you when they have questions.
"I'm positive I will not be there when they decide to be intimate with someone for the first time," Dr. G says of her own four sons.
"All I can do is make sure if my child takes two seconds to take a breathe and think about what I would tell them (in that situation), they already know because we've had those discussions."
Tepper says a great place to start is by asking them what they know already. Then follow that with, "Do you want to know more?" She states, "You can use their answer as a jumping off point, perhaps just correcting misinformation. Watch them for cues to know when you've said enough. Look for age appropriate books and read them together with your child."
Processing death is never easy; I don't care how old you are. But as parents, our instinct may be to shield our children from the concept of death for as long as possible. And while many children, myself included, first learn about death through the loss of a pet, Dr. G believes the best time to start discussing death is before someone dies:
"If there’s someone in your life who is declining in health, talking to your kids about how you’re worried about them and want to spend time with them is much better than avoiding it and then having your child be shocked by their death which can make them feel much less safe in the world." And while it's true we don't always have that ability when an unexpected death occurs, if you've at least discussed the concept with them, it can help to mitigate the impact.
3. Drugs And Alcohol
No one wants their children to fall prey to drug and alcohol use. But the truth is, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "By the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, nearly 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug for a non-medical purpose." Ouch.
Dr. G. recommends taking as many opportunities as you can to discuss the topic with them. So, even if it's as simple as your child seeing you pour a glass of wine, you can acknowledge what it is, and that it's "only for grown-ups." You may not be able to stop your kids from trying these things, but you can open the dialogue early so that they trust you enough to come to you when they're tempted with it later on.
4. Guns & Gun Violence
For as much as we wish gun violence didn't exist in our country at such a staggering rate (the organization Everytown For Gun Safety reports that every day 100 Americans are killed with guns), at this point we know all too well that guns aren't a topic we can afford to dismiss when it comes to our children... particularly when lockdown drills are happening as early as Kindergarten in schools across the country.
But what exactly are we supposed to say about them? I know my own sons have been fascinated by guns, and have played all sorts of pretend shooting games from a young age, even though we don't own any guns, and didn't expose them to guns on television or video games. Dr. G. believes teaching kids that they should "never touch a gun, and always tell a grown-up if they see one," is the most important step in starting the conversation around guns. I did this as soon as I noticed an interest happening with my own children and it certainly makes me feel better to know we have an open dialogue.
But the topic of gun violence is an entirely different beast. As parents, we feel so out of control witnessing so many mass shootings taking place, oftentimes with young children being amongst the victims. On this, Dr. G. says, "You want your kids to know that you realize they’re learning about this [in school], and you’re there to help guide them with questions. Even if you don’t have all the answers."
It's this last part that is most challenging, right? We want to have the answers before we talk to our kids, but as Dr. G. notes, "None of us have all the answers on this topic, and it’s okay to own up to not knowing something." She recommends letting conversations around gun violence provide an opportunity to learn about empathy by saying to them, 'I don’t know why someone would do that and it makes me scared. How does it make you feel.'”
And even though we may feel bombarded with news of shootings these days, Tepper notes you may want to, "err on the side of less information" when it comes to young children, and also notes the importance of reassuring kids, "that these occurrences are very rare and that parents and teachers will keep them safe."
5. Mental Health Issues
The complexities of discussing mental health with young children cannot be understated. These are big, hard to understand concepts, even for grown-ups. When faced with someone who has mental health struggles, whether it be someone in your family, or someone your child sees out in the world, Dr. G. says these conversations you have are going to help shape your kids' values. If you want to raise children who are empathetic towards those with mental health struggles, then you need to start those conversations early.
For us, that means we avoid using words such as "crazy" to describe people or actions. Dr. G. adds to this that you can explain someone has an illness that may require them to take certain medications, and if they don't, sometimes their behavior becomes unpredictable. The value she says you can teach with small children is that we should "do everything we can to take care of ourselves," and that includes taking care of our minds as well.
Whatever the topics, Dr. G. notes that, "No matter how awful the conversation feels to you, what you’re doing by having it is showing them that talking to you is the right thing to do. You're telling them time and time again, 'You can count on me.'"