Talking with Youth
Having Difficult Conversations
After traumatic events, there are a number of reasons we sometimes avoid conversations with youth. Sometimes we think the conversation will be highly charged, or perhaps we have a lot of anger about the incident, or maybe guilt. Most often, though, it is because we are anxious about how to answer really difficult questions. So first take a deep breath. Before you engage with your child, take a moment for yourself.
Acknowledge your own feelings.
Take a moment by yourself to address your own feelings about the issue. Some questions for reflection might include:
- If I could list all the feelings I have about this, the list would include _____, _____, _____, _____.
- What I want out of this discussion for myself is_________.
- What I want out of this discussion for my child is _________.
- My greatest fear in approaching this conversation is _________.
- All the reasons I really need to have this conversation are _________.
- The worst possible outcome would be _________.
- The best possible outcome would be _________.
- One thing I realize that would help me feel steady or a little more confident would be __________.
Add any other helpful questions that come to mind. The goal here is to take inventory of your own likely reactions, deal with them, and then step back far enough that you’re able to be reflective instead of reactive in your conversation with your child.
Realize that the most important thing is for your child to know that you're willing to talk about anything that bothers them.
- Our children don’t need us to have all the answers. Most of all, they need to know that we want to be emotionally available to them.
- When youth ask difficult questions, “I don’t know,” or “Let me think about that,” are perfectly acceptable answers. Far better to be honest in that way rather than making up an answer that may or may not be helpful or true.
- Telling children our reasons for believing they don’t need to worry is not helpful. They tend to stop talking with us because they don’t feel listened to or understood. Don’t rush to reassure them. Better to ask questions that encourage them to explore what is beneath their fears so you can work together on what will really help them feel more secure.
Start with easy questions and conversation topics
Rather than asking your children what concerns them about the traumatic incident, start with topics that are comfortable for them to discuss. Consider starting with something like this:
“Sometimes adults think they know what kids are thinking, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I think that sometimes parents should just listen! One thing I’d like to know is what you think kids your age most love to do in their [spare time] [play time].”
Go with a few more of these low-threat topics. Then slowly move toward questions that invite youth to share feelings and fears.
“When I was little (or young) sometimes I thought that I should be able to handle stuff on my own. Can you think of a time when something was difficult or a challenge or frightening, and you didn’t talk about it with adults because you thought you should handle it on your own?”
“What are some of the reasons kids don’t ask their parents for help [or “confide in them”]?”
“What do kids your age wish adults understood about what it is like to be a kid today?”
Then move toward the traumatic incident with questions like:
“What are some of the things kids are worried about right now? You notice that often, questions are framed so kids can feel like they’re answering for someone else, which is less threatening. They’re apt to be less defensive when we ask what kinds of things worry their friends. They don’t have to directly “own” their response.
“Lots of adults are concerned about how much kids might be worried about [what happened at school this week] [the kids that were in that accident] [describe the incident]. We’re not sure how kids are doing. How do you think your friends are doing? [And you might then add, “How do you think you’re doing?”]
Continue to ask questions that encourage them to help you discover the base of their fears and what they think might help, such as:
“It sounds like you’re worried about what it will be like to go back to school [or revisit the place where it happened]. We can take lots of time to figure out what might help.”
“I think if that happened to me when I was your age, I might be anxious or afraid. What are some things that worry you?”
Often we think adults should have all the answers. We assume that we know why kids don’t need to worry or what should make them feel better. The take-away here is that most of all, kids need to feel listened-to or they won’t continue to talk with us.
- Ask questions that encourage them to tell you more.
- Ask questions that help them identify what might help, what helps them feel safe, who the people are who they most trust in different settings.
- Ask “What can I do that would help?” and let them tell you! You aren’t promising you can do whatever they say, but it gives them the clear sense that you’re with them on the journey.
- Reinforce that getting better doesn’t happen all at once, it will be lots of steps in a helpful direction. And remember that for yourself as well. Getting better will be a series of steps for both of you.
Activities for Parents
The following activities are designed for you as a parent to do individually. Take a deep breath or two before diving in to give yourself a moment to become fully present.
Activity #1: Ritual
We all have rituals of varying sorts. Some everyday kinds of rituals like the first-cup-of-coffee moments, when we savor a quiet house before the kids are up. Rituals may be for your physical well-being such as a daily yoga practice. Some are to meet a spiritual need that is fulfilled through daily meditation or prayer.
Because your current reality is now different than it has been, it’s a significant time to look at rituals you might want to remove, change, or add to your day.
This worksheet may help you decide an updated routine.
Activity #2: Adapting Schedules
Consider looking at the schedule you adopted early on when your kids’ first began online learning. It’s likely that your focus was on how to accomplish what the teachers were requesting. This is a worthy goal, but perhaps it is time now to look at what will also serve you as a parent. You probably need more moments in your day that are rejuvenating.
This worksheet may help you develop an updated daily schedule.
Activity #3: Making Time for You
Take a moment to look back at your list from Activity #2. Make a note on the side of each one: A is alone time for you, T is together time with your kids. Are there any changes you could make to afford yourself some healthy breaks?
Activities for Families
The following activities can be done with your children. Plan to give your child your full attention during this time.
Activity #1: Learning Your Child's Perspective
Sit down with your kids and make a list of things that they are going well or at least OK from their perspective. Much of what they list may be about connecting with friends and have nothing to do with your parenting. But some of them may be about parenting or home life.
You can let yourself feel good about both! If your child feel good about how school is going or how he or she is connecting with friends in new ways, this still reflects on your ability to create an environment that fosters your child’s well-being. Sometimes, we’re harder on ourselves than we need to be.
Activity #2: Get Outside
Make a list of the places you can go outside. Is there a park where you can go while still maintaining physical distance from others? What about your yard, if you have one? Can you walk the streets in your neighborhood?
Beneath each of the places you list, generate at least three new ideas about what you could do with that space. Try to think of activities that are unusual for your family.
- Maybe you have an old croquet set in the attic. If not, what game could you invent based on this game but uses what you have on hand? Wire hangers would be a start for the wickets.
- Got a park nearby but no kite? What do you have on hand for a homemade version? Have a contest to see whose kite flies longest or highest.
Activity #3: Play Games
What are the board games you haven’t played in awhile? Don’t have Mancala? Look it up online and make your own “board.” You don’t need the dips in the board for the traditional game — you could use little custard cups or muffin tins.
Activity #4: Play Without Words
Try building something together without communicating in words. You could use legos, each putting just one piece on the project without talking to each other about what the end product will be or is supposed to represent or be able to do. You might also agree that you’ll do the first half with them, and then they get to complete it on their own, which gives you a little alone time.
Activity #5: Create Your Own Story
If your child is old enough to write at least a short passage, begin a magical or mystical story. If you write the first couple of paragraphs, you can end mid-sentence. Your child or children can pick up from there for another couple of paragraphs. They may not be adept at ending their contribution with an obvious question for you to answer or idea for you to complete, so just pick it up where they stop and write a couple of paragraphs that end with something obvious for them to continue. Example:
- It was a magical day in the forest. It was sunny and warm and quiet, until two [10-year-old] kids came over the hill, shouting and laughing and running. Their parents often let them play in the woods behind the house, but they had no idea that as soon as the kids were out of sight, they entered into a magical world that was….
- Depending on what your kids write, additional paragraphs you add might contain elements such as:
- How the kids entered the magical place. Was it a password? A magic door in a tree?
- Who else or what was in this magical place? Do they have magical powers?
If your child is too old to enjoy writing stories like this, try writing a children’s book together. You can work on the story line together, but but maybe your child does the illustrations. Ask your tween or teen, “If we were going to do the greatest book for little kids, what would that be?”
Maybe your tween or teen would engage in writing a manual for something they know how to do. Maybe it’s about something you’d like to learn together. You could write the “how to start” book:
- How to start slow cooking at home
- How to start a garden for first-timers
- How to organize your room
Planning Summer Vacations
As you plan your summer, you’ll be weighing in the issues that may create parameters for whether you’ll take a vacation, what modes of transportation seem safe, where you’ll stay and who you’ll be willing to visit.
The easiest approach is to find out who has the most stringent needs (wearing masks, physical distance, outdoors only, etc.) and have everyone agree to meet those needs. In these cases, visits will happen more often and more easily.
The push to keep the economy going means we’re opening stores and workplaces at the expense of health. We’ve already begun to see that Covid will spread and case numbers will spike as we re-open. If you want to continue to protect your family, you may find yourself at odds with others who are a bit more cavalier.
All of this can bring us to difficult conversations. Here are some considerations that may help.
Make a list of the risks that concern you and why. Examples:
- We have an elderly family member who would not survive COVID-19 and we’re committed to protecting his health.
- We have a family member with a condition that leaves her at high risk.
- We’re clear that we want to try to stay clear of COVID until there is a vaccine.
- Get clear about what your limitations are. Physical distance, masks, indoors vs. outdoors and so on.
- We’re willing to be with others who maintain the same practices we do (masks, whatever)
- We’re willing to be outside at the beach where there is a constant breeze without a mask but want everyone to wear one if we’re outside in someone’s back yard in closer proximity.
- Consider that you may have family members whose needs for safe measures are more stringent than yours. Whether they make sense to you or not, is there any reason not to accept their perceived needs and meet their requests?
Preparing for the Vacation Conversation
You don’t have to decide that the first conversation will be a make-it-or-break-it deal. It can simply be information gathering and sharing. Either party may reflect on this first conversation and find ways to amend plans in ways that work for both. Approach it with interest and curiosity rather than winning or deciding. You might frame it something like this:
“We’re interested in seeing whether there is a way for us all to get together and still make sure everyone is comfortable with everybody’s need for masks or distance or other ways of feeling safe. I thought a start might be just to listen to what your needs are and talk about ours and see whether we’re pretty well-matched already or whether one of us might not feel comfortable.”
In order that you don’t close out the conversation and lose the opportunity for figuring out alternatives that will work for everyone, you might end with:
“Thanks for taking time with me on this. Let me think it over to see if there are other options that might work for all of us and I hope you’ll do the same.” You can decide whether you’ll continue the conversation via email or calls, but leave the door open.
Some comments that might be helpful in the process could be:
“It isn’t like there is one right answer, but that the uncertainty of the situation leaves us all with questions that don’t really have answers. I think it is just important for us to approach this in a way that – in the end – we all feel comfortable with an agreement.”
“I’m sure that one reason I feel this way is that science is still learning more about what makes us most vulnerable, so they’re still learning as well.”
“We know that the virus has mutated many times and it will continue to do so. I think that’s one thing that makes me more cautious.”
Remember, there are many ways of amending a situation that might make it possible to get together.
- Being outside
- Sharing meals but on separate picnic or portable tables
- Having lots of sprinklers going in the yard so kids can be running through the water but maintaining distance
- Going to a drive-in movie in your own cars but parking together
- Camping with each family having it’s own space and being in canoes together, but parallel with others
Covid restrictions won’t last forever, but the pandemic is going to be with us for some time yet.
This means many things, but two fundamental parts of this are:
- The need to protect our families remains very individual and it helps greatly if it can just be accepted by all concerned.
- We need social contact now more than ever (given we’ve been so isolated these past few months) so finding new ways of doing both (being together but staying safe) requires creativity because flexibility in your parameters for safety doesn’t likely serve you well.
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