You know the situation, you’re driving to soccer, the kids are in the back and someone pulls out in front of you; you shout “SH*T” or something more colourful. Your toddler giggles and starts repeating it “Sh*t, Sh*t, Sh*t”. Your 6 year old pipes up, “Mummy swore,” You deny it then your 8 year old sweetly asks, “Yes you did. You said Sh*t. Sh*it is like the F word but not as bad. What does the F word mean, Mummy?” Now you really are in the Sh*t!
Or then again on a more somber note, a sleepy child walks into your room at night and says, “I can’t sleep.” When you enquire why they tell you they are scared in case they die in their sleep, like they saw on the news. When you try to reason with them they ask you, “How do you know I won’t die.” and “What happens if I die?” Now, the rest of the night is spent cuddling them as they fall back to sleep while you lie there awake worrying about their worries.
Or what about the times when a precious tweenie tells you they know about sex but “What is it oral sex?”
Or your early teenager states simply, “If you love Mummy/Daddy why do you do that gross ‘S-E-X thing’?”
Or even that heart-aching question; “If I had been good would you and Mummy have stayed together? Is it my fault?”
I’ll stop here and spare you the squirmy questions your adult child might ask you; I am still figuring out how to answer some of these with my own adult children – but you get the gist – our kids can stop us short, cause us to choke on our double-shot lattes and generally bamboozle us with their curious, inquiring minds by asking such awkward and tricky questions!
What I have learned over my 26 years of parenting is that there are a few key concepts to keep in mind that help navigate the TQS (Tricky Question Situation)
- When your children ASK the question LISTEN, attend to what they are saying. Furthermore, what are they exactly asking and how does this relate to their current worldview? For instance, if a 6-year old is asking what sex is, your answer will be very differently constructed than if your 14-year old asks the same question.
- Before rushing in with an answer check you have the question right, or where the question has come from to give you a sense of where your child’s inquiry is focused. Something like, “you are wondering if you will die in your sleep.” or “You are asking me about oral sex, where have you heared this word being used?” or ”What made you wonder about this?”
- Remain open and even if you are surprised (or shocked) try to be mindful of what your body language and initial verbal response is as your child will be looking at these and may even feel judged or embarrassed if you are horrified or react dramatically to their big question.
- Remember that your child coming to you with questions signifies their trust in you and the importance they place in your opinion/thoughts. That is something very special; treasure it and treat that trust with the respect it deserves.
- When you give your answer, be sure to answer the actual question asked. For example a question about what a condom is with a 10 year old (and believe me they do ask these sorts of things) does not merit a full-blown demonstration of how to use these and where to buy them. Just a simple factual answer will suffice. If your child needs more information or clarification they will ask another question. Let them guide the discussion, when they’ve heard enough they may well change topic of conversation or they may want to go off and get on with whatever they were doing/going to do.
- Ensure you share with your partner/child’s other parent what you have talked about so that you can both give a united front in your response and know where your child is up to with their knowledge. Try to find common ground; especially if you realise you have different views on a matter. Figure out a best approach to handling this and try to find common ground without overt conflict for your child’s sake. You can still convey that it is okay to ask a question and that people can see things differently but there are ways to work together on a mutually understood answer.
- If the questions are ones which are causing your child distress (say to do with death/pandemic fears etc.) try to avoid giving false reassurance yet offer them honest validation that you are there for them and will support them even if you can not give them the answer they want (such as; “I promise I will never die”) and that these big ideas are difficult, normal to consider and important to discuss.
- Acknowledge your child’s curiosity, braveness or interest in asking the question.
- Remember these times are opportunities for building relationships and making memories.
- Finally, don’t forget you might not have all the answers, but your child will value the fact that you can admit that. Moreover, you and your child can look for the answer together or find an answer that will help on the internet or form another source/person etc. e.g.: “If you and Dad split up will we ever go on holiday together again?” An answer that might work in this instance could be: “We will need to figure these things out but what I do know is that even if we don’t all go together on holiday, our family has always made holiday a fun and relaxing time for whoever does go. That will not change.”
In a nutshell focus on: LA CRAVE
Listen & Attend
Check with judging
Respond with honesty and clarity
Attend again (any dialogue that follows)
Validate (their inquiring mind)
Elizabeth Mary Cummings
Elizabeth is a writer and educator working in the family mental health sector. Born in Manchester, educated in Scotland and have lived in Australia and New Zealand for many years. Elizabeth graduated from Edinburgh University in Scotland in Psychology before training as a primary school teacher. Her stories often take a child’s perspective to explain the world and reflect on important life experiences including themes of resilience, grief, equality, the natural environment, kindness, empowerment, anti-bullying and mental health. Elizabeth’s first book, ‘The Disappearing Sister’, has gained attention for its simple explanation of eating disorders aimed at supporting siblings and families of sufferers. Elizabeth regularly speaks at schools, literary events, clinical conferences on mental health matters. Her areas of interest include mental health, trauma and social justice. She heads up Literary Lived, building community knowledge about tough life experiences, supporting those who are going through difficult times.