How to answer your child's awkward questions

How to answer your child's awkward questions

Author: Canadian Living


How to answer your child's awkward questions

This story was originally titled "Kids Ask the Darndest Things" in the June 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

How do you talk to your kids about tricky topics? Share your tips and tricks with fellow readers in our comment section below.

I'm very close to my children. My oldest daughter, who is 14, has started to ask me why I rarely talk to my mother. We had a falling out 10 years ago and there is still bitterness. What do I say to her?
Is this a case of "Do as I say, not as I do?" Not really, says Dr. Peter Marshall, a psychologist in Barrie, Ont. "I would say no more than, 'As a parent, I'm very lucky I have this relationship with you. I wish I'd been able to have that with my own mother.'"

If there is a history of unresolved abuse or neglect, says Dr. John Paterson, a psychologist in Edmonton, assure your daughter that you're working on the issue yourself. If not, make a gesture of reconciliation toward your mother. "Start with something very simple, like a short phone conversation," he advises. "Keep the phone calls to two minutes; it's the long calls that often start family feuds."

A family member is terminally ill with cancer. My eight-year-old has asked if she is dying. Should I be honest?
"I don't believe in lying to children if it can be avoided," says Paterson. "Say, 'We're hoping for the best, but it doesn't look good.'" Obscuring the truth, adds Marshall, will only create issues in the future. "If you don't know how long the person has, tell your children that. Your kids will be angry if they find out they've been deceived. Talk about what they can do to help, and let them know there will be times when they may be sad or angry."

He adds, "When someone has actually died and the kids go to the funeral, tell them what to expect. They won't know if it's OK to look at a grandparent in a coffin, for example, and they should be prepared."

Page 1 of 4 - find out how to answer more awkward questions on page 2

My nine-year-old walked in when my husband and I were being intimate and asked what we were doing. I flubbed an answer and didn't properly address him. How should I have tackled this?
While you may be shocked at being caught in flagrante delicto, consider what it looks like to your child, says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist in Toronto.

"If you react in the moment, you won't handle it well. Just say, 'Close the door, I'll come talk to you.'" When you've gathered your thoughts – not to mention your composure – talk it over. "At that age, you can be honest," says Kolari. "Say 'We were having some private time together and we were showing how we love each other. What you saw is normal, and no one was getting hurt. In the future, we'll make sure we close the door and please knock before you come in.'"

Gauge your child's maturity level, ask what he knows about sex and where babies come from, and go from there, adds Marshall. "Speak at his level, and then explain that sex is a normal and healthy part of a relationship," he says.

My son asked me if God exists. I'm not really religious, but I want him to make his own decision and feel free to explore religion and spirituality. What do I say?
Whatever your spiritual beliefs, it's important to teach children respect and tolerance for others. Paterson says that while it's important to pass on our own cultural values, "we need to remember that we don't have all the answers." Kolari agrees, pointing out that while parents teach ethics, "it's always better when children come to their own conclusions. Then they'll really understand what they believe."

The bottom line? "Tell your child, 'I have one set of beliefs that I share with you, but you should be willing to listen to other points of view,'" says Paterson.

A relative makes some pretty racist remarks and uses bad language at family gatherings when our kids are present. Do I say something then or talk to my kids privately afterward?
If Uncle Ed is swearing up a storm of prejudice in your home, call him on it, says Kolari. "You can say something in a strong, neutral way, such as, 'In our home, we don't speak this way, and please don't continue to do so in front of our kids.' Most people would be embarrassed and stop. Plus it sends the right message to the kids."

But there are exceptions, adds Paterson, who points out that holidays are tough on some families. "If Uncle Ed comes over and has strong racist views, discuss it beforehand and afterward with them. The reverberations from major confrontations on religious and special holidays can last forever."

Page 2 of 4 - discover how to talk to your kids about sex on the next page

What do I say if my child asks if I've ever experimented with drugs?
Questions about drugs put parents on a tightrope, says Paterson. If you admit you tried them, you worry that your kids may think, 'Dad says he doesn't like it, but he tried it, so he doesn't mind.' If you say, 'No, I never tried drugs,' they may not believe anything you say."

What's more, says Kolari, if you suspect your teen is already experimenting, "that's not the time to tell them you tried magic mushrooms at 16. You can say that kids experiment and you were a teenager, too, but if they ask directly, you don't have to answer."

Rather, find the middle ground: "Use examples of real people who had a wonderful future and don't anymore because of drug use; things that don't implicate you," says Paterson. "Use that as a platform to connect with your kids and bring them into a conversation about drugs and your concerns."

My teenager asked when I started having sex. How do I handle that?
You can do it in four words: "None of your business," says Paterson. "Our children shouldn't be our best friends. We have to arm them with information and let them know what our values are, but it's not necessary to share all your personal information."

That said, setting boundaries doesn't mean shutting down a conversation. "Our kids are not really interested in what we did as teens; [their questions] are about what they're thinking of doing themselves," says Marshall. He adds that if you want your teen to wait until he or she is at least 18 to have sex, talk to them about it as early as age 10.

"Some people think that's much too young, but by that age, they've been exposed to more than their parents think. You won't encourage children to have sex by talking about it."

Find out more about talking to your teens about sex here.

Page 3 of 4 - Find out how to talk to your kids about alcoholism and depression on page 4

My brother is an alcoholic and can't keep a job. My husband's sister-in-law is chronically depressed. How much should we tell our kids, ages seven and 13? I don't know how much they hear from their cousins.
If your relatives' problems are obvious, be forthright with your children, says Marshall. "I would tell my kids there is a problem, but emphasize they still have to be respectful of their relative's privacy. If the alcoholism is active and the person is not being discreet about it, ask them not to come to family functions when drunk."

Discussions about depression – which affects eight per cent of adults, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada – require the same sensitivity as talks about addiction. First, ask the person affected if you can explain her illness to your children. "If she says no, tell your kids that there are times when the person is sad, and it's private," says Marshall. For older children, use a narrative technique, adds Kolari. "You can talk about depression, that it's an illness of their brain...a disease or sickness."

My son, 13, has asked me, "Why are you and Dad still together? You fight all the time and don't seem to love each other anymore." How do I answer him?

People argue – teens more than most. Yet when it comes to seeing your parents do battle, even a kid with all the answers can come up empty-handed. "Your goal isn't to hide all conflict," says Marshall. "It's important for kids to see their parents discuss, debate and resolve things. You can say, 'You might hear us argue, but we still love and care about each other and we aren't going to break up.'"

If arguments upset your child, tone it down – but that doesn't mean you have to pretend all is well, says Paterson. "If you fake it, kids get that. If kids are brought into the picture, they'll be less likely to assume the worst." If the marriage is truly troubled, it's important to reassure your children, he adds. "Often a child thinks he's to blame because the parents start screaming over something the child wanted. You have to be aware of his viewpoint."

My kids have started asking questions about death, such as what happens to your body and what happens when we die?
Heaven, nirvana or paradise – the range of beliefs surrounding death is vast and varied. While your answer will reflect your values, says Kolari, it's good to keep your answer simple. From ages six to nine, when children may be fascinated by death, explain that death means the body is not working anymore. For many children, however, the focus is on losing a parent. To deal with that, says Paterson, reassure your child that most people live well into old age, and that you're healthy and exercising, and are doing everything you can to make that happen.

You can find more great parenting advice here.

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How to answer your child's awkward questions