Kids ask a lot of tough questions that can make parents, grandparents, teachers, and coaches squirm. Questions such as: “When will we die?” “Are you the tooth fairy?” “How did the baby get in her belly?” and “Why is he sleeping on the street?” Kid questions can sometimes be difficult to answer but tough questions can spark great conversations that help build trust and a sense of safety for kids. Here are some tips to help you navigate your kids’ tough questions.
What are they really asking? Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to understand what their specific question is and what they already know about the topic before answering the question. For example, with the question “Why is he sleeping on the street?” they might be simply asking “Where is his bed?” which could be answered for a young kid with something like “He might not have a bed to sleep in.” This could spark some follow-up questions depending on the age of your child. However, if you launch into an explanation of all the reasons people could be homeless you could miss the specific question being asked and overwhelm your child with too much information at one time.
Provide answers that are factual, developmentally appropriate, and brief. Parents often ask me how much to share with their kids when answering questions. Kids and teens often need short answers, so if your answer is more than a paragraph long you are likely talking more than you need to. Questions are a great time to provide building-block facts and terms to later help your kids understand a larger concept or idea. For example, to answer the question of “How did the baby get in her belly?” you could start with asking what they already know or how they think this happens. Then use the opportunity to correct any misinformation such as storks being involved while introducing some new information about how babies start as embryos and grow in a mommy’s womb. It is helpful for kids to have correct terms and information from the beginning to help build their trust that adults will answer their questions with true information. This also helps lay the foundation for more follow-up questions as they get older and you can keep expanding based on their developmental age with information about fertilization and relationships.
Unfortunately, kids and teens hear of violence, natural disasters, and sickness in our world often. This can spark questions about: what is suicide, a pandemic, war, etc. The question behind most of these types of questions is “Am I safe?” When something is scary and hard to understand kids and teens naturally look to the adults in their life for reassurance. This often means adults are in the position of talking with kids about incidents and topics they are still trying to understand and process themselves. So take a moment to pause and ask yourself if you are in a good mental place to answer their question. Also, think through the ways your family, team, or classroom are staying safe and share this with them as you answer the questions.
Kids and teens can certainly come up with some tough questions as they experience and explore the world around them. As adults, we don’t always know the answers to these questions. Many people are starting to reach out to school counselors, therapists, and other mental health providers to help navigate and process tough questions with their kids and find healthy ways to cope with distressing circumstances.
By Jennifer Wilmoth, LMFT