Answering Kids' Tough Questions
When parents are stumped by an awkward or unusual question, these proven strategies can help them find the right response.
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Kids are bound to ask "those questions" -- the simple ones that are the hardest to answer, that pry into your private life or leave you feeling inconsistent or hypocritical if you reply the wrong way. You may struggle to answer certain questions, or be stunned by the idea that kids think about these things at such a young age.
"Kids may also ask questions as a way to tell you there's something deeper on their minds," says John Sommers-Flanagan, professor of counselor education at the University of Montana and coauthor of Problem Child or Quirky Kid. "Kids aren't always good at articulating their concerns, so they may hide a question within a question."
As you'll see in the queries posed here, there are no truly "right" answers to kids' most probing questions. However, being able to respond appropriately is key to helping kids grow into open-minded, responsible adults.
What Are You Doing with the Door Closed?
"Talking about sexual issues with anyone, let alone your children, can be an uncomfortable experience," says Paul Coleman, a clinical psychologist and author of How to Say It to Your Kids. "But if they sense you're uneasy, they'll immediately feel the same way." This could make your children less inclined to ask other more important questions on the subject of sex when they get older.
The Reason They're Asking: Depending on the age of the child, asking about sexual topics can range from innocent chatter, a way to make you unnerved, or if they're older, as a way to understand the feelings they're beginning to learn about themselves.
A Good Way to Answer: If you feel they're ready, then you're better off admitting you're anxious up front by saying, "This isn't easy for most adults to talk about. I wish it were, but it isn't."
Coleman says, "That way, they won't misinterpret your anxiety and think they're asking something they shouldn't." Then, answer their questions as completely as you can. "Be informative, but you don't have to be too elaborate," says Coleman.
Are You Going to Die?
"Children up to age 6 can't always grasp the permanency of death," says Coleman, "Don't be surprised if they ask the question again later on."
The Reason They're Asking: Many things can trigger this question -- the news, a storybook, a bad dream -- but asking it is often a child's way of expressing his concern about himself. "Even if kids aren't asking outright, they are usually wondering if they will still be taken care of," says Sommers-Flanagan. They may even be scared about their own health and are displacing it on you.
A Good Way to Answer: "Telling your children that you won't die isn't wise because they already suspect that's not true," says Coleman. The answer should be "Yes, but not for a long time."
Be honest, but reassuring. If you have older living relatives -- or had any who lived a long life -- use them as examples of how you're bound to live a long life. Or, if you are practicing healthy habits, explain to them how doing things like watching your weight, exercising, or not smoking can help you live even longer.
"Explain how the average person lives to around 75 to 80, so they can see that you're not in that age range," says Coleman. "Give examples they can see for themselves. It helps relieve them after you're honest with the answer."
Are You & Dad Getting a Divorce?
"It's an easy one to answer if your marriage is sound," says Coleman. "But if it's in a state of disarray, then the information you share with your child when answering that question can be a real challenge."
The Reason They're Asking: Often "children are less concerned with what went wrong with your marriage and more concerned about how the situation will impact them," Coleman says. "The real issue for your child is knowing what their life is going to look like afterward."
A Good Way to Answer: Never tell them that you're getting a divorce until you're absolutely positive that's what's going to take place. "If you let them know sooner, it only leaves them obsessing about the topic longer than necessary," says Coleman.
Also, discuss only the things your kids have observed. Saying things such as "You've heard us fighting a lot lately" sets up the conversation around information they already know, instead of revealing other facets of the marriage they may not need to know, he says. Kids may be secretly wondering: Should I feel guilty living with one parent over the other? Will I lose my friends if I move? Prefacing each question with "You may be wondering if..." can give them answers while easing their conscience.
Finally, avoid saying anything negative about your spouse. Stay neutral as much as possible.
Did You Ever Use Drugs?
If you have, it's easy to feel trapped when your child asks about drug use or underage drinking. "Most parents feel awkward answering the question for two reasons," says Coleman. "They don't want to encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps, and they're afraid of going down a notch in their child's eyes."
The Reason They're Asking: "If your child is very young, odds are they're just asking it in passing because of something they saw and heard elsewhere. In that case, it's wiser to say that you didn't," says Coleman.
However, if they're close to being a teenager or older, they may be asking because they know someone who has tried drugs, or have been approached to try them. Asking about drugs doesn't mean your kid is planning to try them, but it's an important question.
A Good Way to Answer: Be as truthful as you can. "If you say 'yes,' also be sure to tell them that you wish you hadn't," says Sommers-Flanagan. If you're not direct about wishing you hadn't, you'll make them curious to know why, he says.
"This lets you reveal some of the dangerous facts about drugs in a way that feels less preachy. Showing your kids how you came to a right decision about it can also make them feel confident they will make the right choice too."
You might also say, "Sure, I turned out okay, but one out of five kids isn't as lucky." Next, second-guess that statistic and ask them to help you look it up at the local library or online to see if you're right.
Learning the facts about drugs together can have a profound impact on kids. "They'll be much less likely to believe you're making things up just to scare them," says Coleman.
Are We Going to Be Attacked?
"The threat of terrorism is one of the fears we may actually share with our children," Sommers-Flanagan says. It's crucial to know what made them ask.
The Reason They're Asking: "Just asking what provoked the question will most likely yield the answer," says Sommers-Flanagan. Don't be surprised if your own comments about war or terror attacks may have led your child to feel more insecure.
A Good Way to Answer: Provide reassurance, but never dismiss your child's fears. Saying "Oh, don't worry about it" can confuse them because the fear they feel is very real and is reinforced by the news every day. Instead, say "I can see why you're scared," then explain why the odds are against an attack -- especially if you live in an area that's never had an incident of terrorism.
Ask them what they would like to do in order to feel safer, then develop a plan together. Buying duct tape and extra water, for example, can turn the fear into a problem-solving activity. "You're teaching them how to conquer their fears by thinking them through instead of running from them," Sommers-Flanagan says.
Any Other Questions?
No matter what question your child poses, these tips can help you respond -- whether you know the answer or not.
- Be thankful they asked you. Praise their curiosity by saying something like "Gee, that's very interesting! What made you think of that?" Making them feel positive for asking a question, rather than uneasy, can make them more comfortable with telling you why they asked it.
- Make it normal. Even if you're floored by their question, saying things like "Many kids your age ask that," can alleviate anxiety from asking the question and make them more open with you later in life, says Coleman.
- Don't be afraid to fail. When faced with a question you have no answer to, say "I want to be sure, so let's look it up together." This teaches your child to be honest, but also lets you show them the right way to find the answer.
- Find the question behind the question. Explore your child's question. Often there's a specific concern -- or at the very least, a curiosity -- that's driving the question.
- Respect your own rights. If a question is too private, say so, says Coleman. Equate your answer to something in their lives that's private (such as conversations with their friends or using the bathroom). Admitting something is private shows that there are boundaries, yet it won't seem as if you have anything to hide from them.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, July 2005.