How to Talk to Kids About Tough Subjects

Talking about tough subjects with kids is enough to leave parents speechless.

How to talk to your kids about tough subjects

It’s a given that our pre-teens and teens are going to be exposed to some pretty adult topics these days through their friends, the news, school, the Internet, social networking sites, movies, and television. From bullying to body image, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, and sex, concerned parents face a lifetime of important conversations and big talks with their children on some difficult subjects.

“It’s crucial to lay down a warm and loving foundation with our kids,” says psychotherapist Arden Greenspan-Goldberg, the author of What Do You Expect? She’s a Teenager! (Chronicle Books).  “There’s a lot of confusion about when to talk with our kids about these sticky issues, and a misconception that doing so too early may encourage them to act out.” Her advice? “Don’t wait until it becomes an issue and they’re in the thick of it. Start speaking to them now.”

Here are more tips on how to keep the conversation going and feeling comfortable for everyone.

 1.    Keep the discussion age-appropriate.

Remember your child’s limits, age, and maturity level. “These ‘big anxious talks’ can become overwhelming and TMI [too much information] for both parent and child. Education and advice need to be doled out in small chunks that are understandable and age-appropriate for a child. We don’t want them to tune out.”

2.    Timing counts.

Don’t approach your child when they’re rushing out the door to get to school in the morning, or distracted by homework and extracurricular activities. Pick a moment when your child is not flustered, tired, cranky, or hungry. Otherwise, you’re just asking for more trouble. “If they’ve just come home from school, or they’re starving, give them a chance to breathe and settle down before you start talking to them.”

3.    Watch TV with them.

Look for fictional and true storylines and plot twists to spark conversations. “A child needs a reference point, some visuals. TV programs and books can help a subject matter come alive for kids. You can watch the episodes together and use them as a springboard for further discussions. Ask them, ‘What would you do? What do you think this character could have done instead?’”

4.    Let your concern do the talking and not your anger.

“Most kids want to turn to their parents when they face any hot spots or get into trouble. It’s sad when they can’t because they are too intimidated and fear punishment.” Check your body language. Nonverbal cues, such as the tone and volume of your voice, your gestures, even the way you pace nervously back and forth, all can signal to your child that you’re anxious, alarmed, or angry. Let’s face it. It’s hard to hear any message when a person is screaming. The more serious the subject matter, the calmer and more logical you need to be.

5.    Stay on message.

Keep it simple. Nobody likes a long lecture, especially teens and preteens. They’ll be less likely to tune you out if you keep the message short, direct and to the point. Don’t digress.  Remember, a longer conversation is not necessarily better and you can always return to the conversation later. It’s not a race, so you don’t have to be in a hurry or rush to get out all the facts all at once.

6.    Be open and receptive.

If your child is the one to approach you, and is unsure about how to handle a situation, don’t rush to make judgments or scold. Really listen and pay attention to his or her words before offering advice. That way, your kid will be more likely to come to you when he or she needs your help and advice in the future.

Most of all, your kid needs to see that your words are coming from a place of love, concern, and protection.

7.    Pay attention to their cues.

Give your teen or preteen a chance to absorb what you’ve said. If you’re counting the number of times they roll their eyes at you and slam the bedroom door, try talking to them later when they’re feeling calmer and more receptive. Many of your words of advice will stay with them and that’s what you want them to remember—the message and your love for them—not that you or they freaked out.

“Expect your kids to experiment, we all have made our mistakes,” says Greenspan-Goldberg, “but hopefully our children can benefit from our wisdom and experience. You want to connect to your kids as a benevolent authority figure, role model, sounding board, and moral compass. You want to be their North Star.”

For more information on these and other conversation starters, go to

About The Author

Suelain Moy
Suelain Moy has devoted many consonants and vowels to the study of babies, toddlers, pregnant mamas, teenagers, celebrities, and other wild things. A published author and writer, she has contributed articles and reviews to many national magazines and parenting web sites, including Parenting, Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, American Baby,,, and She is the author of Names to Grow On: Choosing A Name Your Baby Will Love. When she is not writing, she can be found directing lost tourists wandering the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

5 Responses to How to Talk to Kids About Tough Subjects

  1. tiggy39 says:

    Good ideas not only for parents but grandparents.

  2. whisperandnana says:

    My problem is watching my grand kid’s divorced parents scream orders at them constantly. I sure wouldn’t want either one of them for my parent. I don’t know what to do. I am afraid to say anything and “butt in” for fear of them keeping my girls away from me, but they are never spoken to in a nice way in my presence, so I’m sure at home it isn’t much better. I want to “save” them. They are 9 and 11 and I love them dearly. Sad Nana

  3. workingmomlovesbargains says:

    As their grandmother, who else is going to be their champion if not you? As a kid who grew up with a father who had anger issues of his own, it wasn’t fun to be the target of yelling. I wish someone had been there for me. You can make a difference for your babies! Take the time to calmly talk it out and let the parents know that they can’t take out whatever is bothering them on their own kids. Suggest counseling or anger management classes if they don’t know how to channel their anger other than yelling at the kids. The parents may not realize what they are doing and you might just open their eyes to the problem. I wish you and your family all the best!

  4. FireHorseMama says:

    I also love the idea of having special days, activities, and outings designated just for Nana and the grandkids. In time your granddaughters will see their time with you as peaceful and loving. They will remember your home or any visits with you as a sanctuary and “scream-free” zone and hopefully their parents will following your loving example. You can do crafts with them, baking, cooking, movie nights, and even watch favorite TV shows. They get to see your reaction and that not everybody yells.

  5. VF says:

    Really appreciated the tip on allowing TV time to turn into opportunities for broaching what could be some awkward topics.