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How to Talk to Youth About Difficult Topics

Tags: Emotional
April 29, 2022 12:00 AM
By: Dr. Dana Milakovic, PsyD, NCSP

One of the hardest responsibilities of being a parent, caregiver, or caring adult is talking to youth about difficult subjects. It can be hard to explain simple things, such as why socks are lost in the dryer, why someone said something mean to them on the playground, or why a relationship ended. It can feel nearly impossible to talk about hard things like racism, violence, pandemics, drugs, and other weighty topics like war. But as hard as this is, research has consistently shown that the presence of a safe, supportive adult increases youth resiliency. We also know that when youth can approach adults, especially family members, about difficult topics they feel safer, more secure, and are better equipped to handle the stressors in the world around them. So how do we address this head on and answer questions about topics they are seeing on the news, in social media, or through other virtual platforms?

By facing the news directly, and remaining calm and offering reassurance, adults can provide a safe space for difficult conversations. The following tips may be helpful:

  1. Find out what they know. Asking youth what they know about the event helps you know what they already know and allows you to provide answers without giving additional imagery that may be traumatic.
  2. Keep in mind their developmental level. Talking about difficult topics will be different when talking to youth with a young developmental level and youth who are more mature. Make sure the words you use, the amount of information you give, and the topics are things they can understand and are in language they can relate to.
  3. Create a safe space for conversations. By saying, "these are difficult things to talk about, even for adults," you create a safe space for conversations. By being open and not correcting or judging youth for their ideas and thoughts, you create space where youth feel they can talk to you about topics that are hard for them.
  4. Be aware of your own bias. We all have bias and being aware of our bias can help us have conversations that feel safe and non-judgmental with youth. Use terms that are general and avoid describing a person's ethnicity, sexual identity, weight, socioeconomic status, etc., unless necessary. By addressing topics with kindness, we can encourage thoughtful dialogues.
  5. Provide emotional words and identification when they are struggling. Provide them with some ideas of how they may be feeling in an open way to help identify feelings. For example, by talking about how when difficult things happen, people may feel a variety of feelings—happy, sad, mad, anger, rage—you provide words for emotions they may be struggling to identify.
  6. Make sure you are aware of your emotions. When we are experiencing strong emotions as adults, it can be hard to stay calm and provide a safe space for conversations. Resources on managing your youth's emotions when you're stressed are available on PDE's mental health page.
  7. Be honest and accurate. Correct misinformation, admit when you don't have knowledge of the situation and offer to find out accurate information together, and explain how youth is kept safe in your environment.
  8. Encourage problem solving and creative solutions. When difficult things are occuring in our individual lives, our social circles, or the world at large, our youth often provide solutions and creative problem solving that we do not think of as adults. By encouraging youth to see a problem, and creatively—but realistically—develop solutions, we are encouraging our youth to change the world.

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