Having difficult conversations does not come easy to most people. The majority of us have to really care for someone to initiate an uncomfortable topic. Often we want to avoid the potential argument, awkward silence and possibility of being seen as incompetent. But, as parents we need to start having conversations we never had with our parents. Conversations that go beyond ‘the sex talk’ and dive deeper into the lives of our children’s technology use. It has now become a parents’ responsibility to monitor, ask and teach children new skills as they access the world through their devices (and allow the world to access them through those same devices). Below is a list of my top 5 suggestions on how to start these difficult and important conversations.
- Practice: Before having a difficult conversation with your kids I encourage you to practice with your partners, friends or even with yourself. Roll the phrases over a few times. New and difficult conversations are like learning a new language; we don’t get it right the first time. With practice (actually saying the words out loud or writing down important points really does help!) the conversation will come much more naturally.
- Ground Yourself: Research is clear, how you start a conversation is most likely how it will end. Crazy, I know. But if we take this research seriously we need to pay attention to how we are feeling (Is my heart racing? Am I short of breath? Am I already discouraged before I start?). Try to take a few breaths and encourage yourself for taking these important steps. If you skip this step your child will sense your discomfort and likely make meaning that this topic is not an ‘ok’ thing to talk about.
- Tap and Go: Kids and teens do not have the inner resources and ability to self regulate. They are learning, but have not yet mastered the skills to bring themselves down from big emotions. For this reason, it is important to check your expectations of the conversation. Do not expect your child to sit and respond in full dialogue on difficult subjects. Their fight and flight response will be distracting them from fully processing what you are saying. They will need time to digest and process. This means parents need to approach the difficult subject multiple times, ideally making them an ongoing conversation. I call this approach ‘tap-and-go’. Breach the subject (tap), then let it go. Allow your child to answer a question, give a response (grunt, shrug of the shoulders, sigh, roll of the eyes), change the subject or even walk away. The hope is to establish an ongoing conversation, not give a lecture or to ‘get it over with’ in one shot.
- Keep the Door Open: Resiliency in children relies heavily on the quality of relationship with their primary care-giver. The stronger the relationship between parent and child, the easier it is for children to navigate difficult decisions, emotions and thoughts. Because this is so foundational to healthy behavior and development you will want to build your relationship with your child, not threaten it. Instead of going into the conversation wanting to check it off your list, or resolve something (is my kid sexting?) ask yourself, “How can I keep the door to our relationship open? Will my child want to re-approach this subject with me later?”.
- Know Your Own Triggers: We all have them. They come from our parents, our past and our fears. Our triggers creep into our relationships at work, with our partners and with our siblings. We can know we are triggered when we find ourselves getting upset. It’s often that simple. Be curious about what upsets you so you can be extra kind to yourself when you are triggered. Common examples of personal triggers include: talking about sexuality with parents, discussing sexual curiosity or preferences, feeling disrespected, feeling unheard, a response that is loud, a silent response, initiating conversations that are uncomfortable for others, secrets, wondering if your child is unsafe, etc. Keep your own triggers in check. If you let your trigger get the better of the conversation your child will loose your important message.
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