Talk with your Kids About...

How to Talk to Your Kids About Anything
Talk With Your Kids About Tough Issues
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues Special - Focus on Dads

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Talk With Your Kids About Tough Issues

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How to Talk to Your Kids About Anything

10 Tips for talking with kids about tough issues


Raising a child is probably the most gratifying job any of us will ever have -- and one of the toughest. In large part, that's because times have changed. We live in an increasingly complex world that challenges us everyday with a wide range of disturbing issues that are difficult for children to understand and for adults to explain.

We believe this booklet can help. It offers practical, concrete tips and techniques for talking easily and openly with young children ages 8 to 12 about some very tough issues: sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, drugs and alcohol.

Some parents and caregivers may question the appropriateness of talking about such sensitive topics with young children. Maybe you're one of them. But consider this: our kids are already hearing about these issues from TV, movies, magazines and school friends. If we don't talk with them early and often -- and answer their questions -- they'll get their facts from someone else. And we'll have missed an important opportunity to offer our children information that's not only accurate, but also in sync with our own personal values and moral principles.

Make sense? We think so. So let's get started.

1. Start Early

Kids are hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues at increasingly early ages, often before they are ready to understand all aspects of these complicated ideas. Additionally, medical research and public health data tells us that when young children want information, advice and guidance, they turn to their parents first. Once they reach the teenage years, they tend to depend more on friends, the media and other outsiders for their information. As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to talk with your child about these issues first, before anyone else can confuse your child with incorrect information or explanations that lack the sense of values you want to instill. We need to take advantage of this "window of opportunity" with young children and talk with them earlier and more often, particularly about tough issues like sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, alcohol and drugs.

2. Initiate Conversations With Your Child

While we want our children to feel comfortable enough to come to us with any questions and concerns -- and thus give us the opportunity to begin conversations -- this doesn't always occur. That's why it's perfectly okay -- at times even necessary -- to begin the discussions ourselves. TV and other media are great tools for this. Say, for instance, that you and your 12-year-old are watching TV together and the program's plot includes a teenage pregnancy. After the show is over, ask your child what she thought of the program. Did she agree with how the teenagers behaved? Just one or two questions could help start a valuable discussion that comes from everyday circumstances and events.

Also, when speaking with your child, be sure to use words she can understand. Trying to explain AIDS to a 6-year-old with words like "transmission" and "transfusion" may not be as helpful as using simpler language. The best technique: use simple, short words and straightforward explanations.

If you have more than one child -- and your kids are widely spaced -- try to speak with them separately, even about the same subject. The reason? Children of varied ages are usually at different developmental levels, which means that they need different information, have different sensitivities and require a different vocabulary. What's more, older children will often dominate the discussion, which may prevent the younger ones from speaking up.

3. Even (especially) about Sex and Relationships

If you feel uncomfortable talking about such sensitive subjects -- particularly sex and relationships -- with your young child, you're not alone. Many parents feel awkward and uneasy, especially if they are anxious about the subject. But, for your kid's sake, try to overcome your nervousness and bring up the issue with your child. After all, our children are hearing about it both through the media and on the playground, and that information may not include the values that we want our kids to have.

4. Create an Open Environment

Young children want their parents to discuss difficult subjects with them. However, our kids will look to us for answers only if they feel we will be open to their questions. It's up to us to create the kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questions -- on any subject -- freely and without fear of consequence.

How do you create such an atmosphere? By being encouraging, supportive and positive. For example, if your child asks, "How many people have AIDS?" try not to answer with, "I don't know. Please just finish your lunch." No matter how busy you are respond with something like, "That's an interesting question, but I'm not sure. Let's go look it up." (FYI: Don't worry that if your children learn that you don't know everything, they won't look up to you. That's simply not true. Kids accept, "I don't know," and "let's go find out," and they are better responses than any inaccurate or misleading answers you may be tempted to offer.)

One more point: You don't need to answer all of your children's questions immediately. If your 10-year-old asks, "Mom, what's a condom?" while you're negotiating a tricky turn in rush-hour traffic, it's perfectly okay for you to say something like, "That's an important question. But with all this traffic, I can't explain right now. Let's talk later, after dinner." And make sure you do.

5. Communicate your values

As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to be the first person to talk with your child about tough issues like drugs and violence before anyone else can confuse him with "just-the-facts" explanations that lack the sense of values and moral principles you want to instill. Likewise, when talking with your child about sex, remember to talk about more than "the birds and the bees," and communicate your values. Remember: research shows that children want and need moral guidance from their moms and dads, so don't hesitate to make your beliefs clear.

6. Listen to Your Child

How many times do we listen to our children while folding clothes, preparing for the next day's meeting, or pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket? While that's understandable, it's important to find time to give kids our undivided attention. Listening carefully to our children builds self-esteem by letting our youngsters know that they're important to us and can lead to valuable discussions about a wide variety of sensitive issues.

Listening carefully also helps us better understand what our children really want to know as well as what they already understand. And it keeps us from talking above our youngsters' heads and confusing them even further. For example, suppose your child asks you what crack is. Before you answer, ask him what he thinks it is. If he says, "I think it's something you eat that makes you act funny," then you have a sense of his level of understanding and can adjust your explanations to fit.

Listening to our children and taking their feelings into account also helps us understand when they've had enough. Suppose you're answering your 9-year-old's questions about AIDS. If, after a while, he says, "I want to go out and play," stop the talk and reintroduce the subject at another time.

7. Be Honest

Whatever your children's age, they deserve honest answers and explanations. It's what strengthens our children's ability to trust. Also, when we don't provide a straightforward answer, kids make up their own fantasy explanations, which can be more frightening than any real, honest response we can offer.

While we may not want or need to share all the details of a particular situation or issue with our child, try not to leave any big gaps either. When we do, children tend to fill in the blanks themselves, which can generate a good deal of confusion and concern.

8. Be Patient

Often it can feel like forever before a youngster gets his story out. As adults, we're tempted to finish the child's sentence for him, filling in words and phrases in an effort to hear the point sooner. Try to resist this impulse. By listening patiently, we allow our children to think at their own pace and we are letting them know that they are worthy of our time.

9. Use Everyday Opportunities to Talk

It's important to try to talk with your kids about tough issues often, but there isn't always time in the day to sit down for a long talk. Also, kids tend to resist formal discussions about today's toughest issues, often categorizing them as just another lecture from mom and dad. But if we use "talk opportunities," moments that arise in everyday life, as occasions for discussion, our children will be a lot less likely to tune us out. For instance, a newspaper item about a child expelled from school for carrying a gun to class can help you start a discussion on guns and violence. A public service TV commercial can give you an opportunity to talk about AIDS.

10. Talk About it Again. And Again.

Since most young children can only take in small bits of information at any one time, they won't learn all they need to know about a particular topic from a single discussion. That's why it's important to let a little time pass, then ask the child to tell you what she remembers about your conversation. This will help you correct any misconceptions and fill in missing facts.

Finally, in an effort to absorb all they want to know, children often ask questions again and again over time -- which can test any parent's nerves. But such repetition is perfectly normal, so be prepared and tolerant. Don't be afraid to initiate discussions repeatedly, either. Patience and persistence will serve you and your child well.

Talking With Kids About Tough Issues Special Focus on Dads

The Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Children Is To Be Their Dad

Parents agree that open parent/child communication is invaluable when raising children. Yet, when kids sit down and talk to parents about tough issues like violence, sex, alcohol/drugs, and HIV/AIDS, they are more often sitting with mom than with dad. This may have more to do with fathers missing conversation opportunities or avoiding certain topics than with a lack of connection between dads and their kids. In an effort to separate fact from fiction, shed some light on father-child communication, and provide some tools for initiating conversations, the Talking with Kids about Tough Issues Campaign (a national effort to support parents by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now) has teamed up with the National Fatherhood Initiative and ESPN to create this special focus on Dads.

The Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now conducted a national survey of 10 to 15 year olds and parents of 10 to 15 year olds in the fall of 1998 to find out whether kids and parents were talking about tough issues like violence, sex, alcohol/drugs and HIV/AIDS. Below are some of the survey findings regarding dads.

How Strong Are Dads' Influence, and Are Kids Comfortable Talking to Dad about Tough Issues?

According to parents, fathers have a strong influence on how their kids think about these issues, albeit slightly less than the influence of mothers. Kids say dads are a good, credible source of information on difficult issues. A majority of kids ages 10 to 15 feel that their father has a good understanding of issues such as AIDS, violence, sex and alcohol, and rank their mothers' understanding just slightly higher than their fathers.

While kids ages 10 to 15 say they are generally more able to talk to mom than dad when something is bothering them, many report they are equally comfortable talking with either parent about certain tough issues. Over a third say they are equally comfortable talking to mom or dad about AIDS, alcohol and drugs, and about how to handle violent situations. Regarding the issue of violence, many kids prefer to talk to their dads.

On the topic of sex, more kids 10-15 prefer to talk to mom than dad. However, it is interesting to note that boys answer differently than girls on this issue. Regarding sex-related topics, boys are fairly evenly divided among those who are most comfortable with mom, dad or either parents, while girls are much less comfortable talking with dad about these issues.

Do Dads Talk with Their Kids about Tough Issues?

Fathers today are talking with their kids about some tough issues but are avoiding others; also, they still lag behind mom in dealing with most of these issues. Most fathers (eight in ten) report talking with their kids about a range of tough issues, including the basics about drugs, alcohol and violence. However, only about half of dads are talking to their kids about the basics of reproduction and less than half are talking about AIDS, relationships, when to become sexually active and how to prevent pregnancy and STDs. Furthermore, topics like what to do if someone brings a gun to school, how to handle peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol, and what AIDS is and how its spread are only being discussed by 1 in 5 dads. So there is a lot of room for dads to make themselves open to more topics and start talking about them with their kids.

The good news is that dads who are having conversations are proactively initiating them, rather than waiting for their kids to come to them first. If kids sense their parents are apprehensive about discussing certain topics, they will be less likely to speak openly and honestly. Parents who initiate tough conversations themselves show they aren't shy and are willing to talk frankly with their kids.

When Dads Do Talk, Kids Listen and Learn

Kids are glad to hear from their parents. Among those who have had conversations with dad, either alone or with their other parent, 9 out of 10 reported having a positive experience. They felt they received good ideas and that the conversations were helpful overall. Even during talks about sex, where kids said dad was less comfortable having the conversation, kids still thought talking was helpful.

Talk Opportunities

With daughters, dads should look to everyday talk opportunities, rather than wait for an incident at home or in the community, to prompt a conversation. Open communication about tough issues like violence, drugs and alcohol can help create an environment in which their daughter feels more comfortable talking with them, even about sex. And, if she isn't comfortable talking with dad about sex in particular, the conversations will likely increase her comfort with going to dad when faced with other tough issues.

With sons, dads need to take advantage of the fact their sons are comfortable talking with them about all issues, including sex. Taking advantage of everyday talk opportunities like car rides, a TV show or a homework assignment will create time to delve beyond the basics into the issues on which their sons wish to learn more.

As you can see, kids definitely want more information from their parents!

What Kids Want to Know, What Parents Don't Talk About

Percent of Kids and Parents Who Say... Kids Ages 10-12 Want

More Info About Topic Parents of 10-12 Yr. Olds Who Never Talked About

Kids Need to Know More
(1) Percent of Kids 10-12 wanting more information, (2) Percent of parents who never talk about it


How to handle potentially violent situations



How to know when you are ready to have sex


How to handle peer pressure to use drugs/alcohol


How to protect against AIDS/STDs


What to do if someone brings a gun to school


How to prevent pregnancy and STDs


What STDs are


How to handle pressure to have sex


How alcohol/drugs might affect decisions to have sex


What AIDS is


What kinds of birth control are available




How girls get pregnant


Drinking and driving


Source: Kaiser Family Foundation/Children Now Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, A National Survey of Parents and Kids conducted September 15-October 3, 1998

Kids Still Need to Know More
(1) Percent of Kids 13-15 wanting more information, (2) Percent of parents who never talk about it


How to handle potentially violent situations



How to know when you are ready to have sex


How to handle peer pressure to use drugs/alcohol


How to protect against AIDS/STDs


What to do if someone brings a gun to school


How to prevent pregnancy and STDs


What STDs are


How to handle pressure to have sex


How alcohol/drugs might affect decisions to have sex


What AIDS is


What kinds of birth control are available




How girls get pregnant


Drinking and driving


Source: Kaiser Family Foundation/Children Now Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, A National Survey of Parents and Kids conducted September 15-October 3, 1998


10 Ways to be a Better Dad: Ten Things Every Father Needs to Know ... And Do!

Spend Time With Your Children

How a father spends his time tells his children what's important to him. If you always seem too busy for your children, they will feel neglected no matter what you say. Treasuring children often means sacrificing other things, but it is essential to spend time with your children. Kids grow up so quickly. Missed opportunities are lost forever.

Earn The Right To Be Heard

All too often the only time a father speaks to his children is when they have done something wrong. That's why so many children cringe when their mother says, "Your father wants to talk with you." Begin talking with your kids when they are very young so that difficult subjects will be easier to handle as they get older. Take time and listen to their ideas and problems.

Discipline With Love

All children need guidance and discipline, not as punishment, but to set reasonable limits. Remind your children of the consequences of their actions and provide meaningful rewards for desirable behavior. Fathers who discipline in a calm and fair manner show love for their children.

Be a Role Model

Fathers are role models to their kids, whether they realize it or not. A girl who spends time with a loving father grows up knowing she deserves to be treated with respect by boys, and what to look for in a husband. Fathers can teach sons what is important in life by demonstrating honesty, humility and responsibility.

Be a Teacher

Too many fathers think teaching is something others do. But a father who teaches his children about right and wrong, and encourages them to do their best, will see his children make good choices. Involved fathers use everyday examples to help their children learn the basic lessons of life.

Eat Together as a Family

Sharing a meal together (breakfast, lunch or dinner) can be an important part of healthy family life. In addition to providing some structure in a busy day, it gives kids the chance to talk about what they are doing and want to do. It is also a good time for fathers to listen and give advice. Most importantly, it is a time for families to be together each day.

Read to Your Children

In a world where television often dominates the lives of children, it is important that fathers make the effort to read to their children. Children learn best by doing and reading, as well as seeing and hearing. Begin reading to your children when they are very young. When they are older, encourage them to read on their own. Instilling your children with a love for reading is one of the best ways to ensure they will have a lifetime of personal and career growth.

Show Affection

Children need the security that comes from knowing they are wanted, accepted and loved by their family. Parents, especially fathers, need to feel both comfortable and willing to hug their children. Showing affection every day is the best way to let your children know that you love them.

Respect Your Children's Mother

One of the best things a father can do for his children is to respect their mother. If you are married, keep your marriage strong and vital. If you're not married, it is still important to respect and support the mother of your children. A father and mother who respect each other, and let their children know it, provide a secure environment for them. When children see their parents respecting each other, they are more likely to feel that they are also accepted and respected.

Realize That A Father's Job Is Never Done

Even after children are grown and ready to leave home, they will still look to their fathers for wisdom and advice. Whether it's continued schooling, a new job or a wedding, fathers continue to play an essential part in the lives of their children as they grow and, perhaps, marry and build their own families.

What It Takes to be a Dad

"Anyone can be a father, but it takes a man to be dad."

  • Read to your children.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Go for walks together.
  • Let your children help with
  • household projects.
  • Spend time one-on-one
  • with each child.
  • Tell your children about your
  • own childhood.
  • Go to the zoo, museums,
  • ball games as a family.
  • Set a good example.
  • Use good manners.
  • Help your children with
  • their homework.
  • Show your children lots of
  • warmth and affection
  • Set clear, consistent limits.
  • Consider how your decisions
  • will affect your children.
  • Listen to your children.
  • Know your children's friends.
  • Take your children to work.
  • Open a savings account for
  • college education.
  • Resolve conflicts quickly.
  • Take your children to
  • your place of worship.
  • Make a kite together.
  • Fly a kite together.

You get the idea...

The Positive Effects of Father Involvement: Playing an active role in your childrens' lives is more important than you ever could have imagined

"A study using a national probability sample of 1, 250 fathers showed that children whose fathers share meals, spend leisure time with them, or help them with reading or homework do significantly better academically than those children who do not." Source: Cooksey, Elizabeth C. and Michelle M. Fondell. "Spending Time with His Kids: Effects of Family Structure on Fathers' and Children's Lives." Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (August 1996): 693-707.

"A study using a nationally representative sample of 1, 600 10-13 year olds found that children who shared important ideas with their fathers and who perceived the amount of time they spent with their fathers as excellent had fewer behavior problems. . .than their peers who did not share important ideas or view the amount of time they spent with their fathers as excellent." Source: Williams, Malcolm V. "Reconceptualizing Father Involvement." Masters Thesis Georgetown University, 1997.

". . .for girls, studies link a sense of competence in daughters-especially in mathematics and a sense of femininity-to a close, warm relationship between father and daughter." Source: Ranin, N. and G. Russell. "Increased Father Participation and Child Development Outcomes." Fatherhood and Family Policy. Eds. M.E. Lamb and A. Sagi. Hillside Lawrence Eribaum, 1983: 191-218.

"A study of parent-infant attachment found that fathers who were affectionate, spent time with their children, and overall had a positive attitude were more likely to have securely attached infants." Source: Cox, M.J. et al. "Prediction of Infant-Father and Infant-Mother Attachment." Developmental Psychology 28 (1992): 474-483.

"In a study of 75 toddlers it was found that. . .children whose fathers spent a lot of time with them and who were sensitive to their needs were found to be better adapted than their peers whose fathers were not as involved and were less sensitive." Source: Esterbrooks, M. Ann and Wendy A. Goldberg. "Toddler Development in the Family: Impact of Father Involvement and Parenting Characteristics." Child Development 55 (1984): 740-752.

The Absence of Quality Time:

"Preschool children watch an average of twenty-eight hours of television per week; teenagers watch an average of 21 hours of television per week. By contrast, teenagers spend only 35 minutes per week talking with their fathers." Source: Bennett, William J. The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: Facts and Figures on the State of American Society. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. 102-103.

"Almost 20 percent of sixth through twelve graders have not had a good conversation lasting for at least 10 minutes with at least one of their parents in more than a month." Source: Peter L. Benson, The Troubled Journey: A Portrait of 6th-12th Grade Youth (Minneapolis: Search Institute, 1993): 84.

"In a study using 1,250 fathers of school aged children, it was found that fathers eat only half of their breakfasts and dinners together with their children." Source: Cooksey, Elizabeth C. and Michelle M. Fondell. "Spending Time with His Kids: Effects of Family Structure on Fathers' and Children's Lives." Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (August 1996): 693-707.

Children should be led into the right paths, not by severity, but by persuasion. - Terence


Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the Internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. If you are concerned, please take up any questions you might have, regarding the content found on this website, with your psychotherapist, physician, or health care provider.