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how to talk to children about difficult topics

One of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects. It's hard enough to explain when a beloved stuffie gets eaten by the washing machine, or when a bully acts tough at school. But it can feel impossible to put into words some of the really big issues, such as violence, racism and other important topics.

But in the age of constant notifications, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage—when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories—it's important to face this challenge head-on.

Addressing the tough stuff makes your kids feel safer, strengthens your bond and teaches them about the world. And when you show them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions and cross-check sources, they become critical thinkers. It's always sad to confront the issues the world hasn't been able to solve. But by investing our kids with knowledge, compassion and strong character, we can give them all the tools they need to make things better.


When your kids learn about something scary or unsettling, most parents get that deer-in-the-headlights feeling. But it's always a good idea to use your kid's age and developmental stage as a guide to starting conversations, because they absorb information differently as they grow from babies to teens.

Understanding a bit about how kids perceive the world in each phase of their development helps you deliver information about it in the most age-appropriate way. Of course, every child brings his or her own sensitivities, temperament, experience and other individual traits to any conversation. So use your best judgment as to how your child tends to takes in information to determine how deep to go.

The tips below are general guidelines for discussing any difficult subject with kids age two through teen based on childhood-development guidelines.

Age 2–6

Young children don't have enough life experience to understand some of the elements involved in complex, difficult topics. They also don't have a firm grasp on abstract concepts or cause and effect. Because they and their primary relationships (mama, dad, siblings, grandparents, even the family dog) are the center of their world, they focus on how things affect them.

They're very sensitive to parents' emotional states and can worry that they did something to make you upset. All of this makes it challenging to explain big issues. On the other hand, you're better able to manage their media exposure, and they can usually move on fairly quickly.

  • Keep the news at bay. Do what you can to limit small kids' exposure to age-inappropriate subjects by turning off or muting the TV and choosing media that's targeted to their age.
  • Reassure with both words and gestures. Say, "you're safe. Mommy and daddy are safe. And our family is safe." Hugs and snuggling work wonders, too.
  • Address feelings—yours and theirs. Say, "It's okay to feel scared, sad, or confused. Those feelings are natural and we all feel them." Also try: "I'm upset, but not with you."
  • Find out what they know. Your kids might not understand the issue very well. Ask them what they think happened before giving them any imagery.
  • Break down issues to their simplest terms. For violent crime, you can say, "Someone used a gun to hurt people." For hate crimes, try, "Some groups of people still aren't treated equally or fairly."
  • Catch your own biases. We all have them. Say, "man," "woman," "girl," and "boy," not "fat guy," "homeless lady," "pretty little girl," or "white boy." Avoid describing a person's ethnicity, sexual identity, weight, financial status, and so on unless it's relevant to the issue.
  • Use vocabulary, ideas and relationships that they're familiar with. Recall a recent, similar situation from their lives that they can relate to. Say, "A man stole something. Remember when someone took your lunchbox?"
  • Use basic terms for feelings such as "mad," "sad," "afraid," "happy" and "surprised." Young children understand emotions, but they don't totally understand mental illness. You can say that someone was angry too much or confused too much and needed extra help. Avoid idiomatic expressions such as "blew a gasket" or "flew the coop."
  • Communicate that someone's in charge. Say, "Mommy and daddy will make sure nothing bad happens to our family." Or, "The police will catch the bad guy."

Age 7–12

Because kids in this age group can read and write, they get exposed to age-inappropriate content more often—but younger kids in this range are still a little shaky on what's real and pretend. As kids gain abstract-thinking skills, real-world experience and the ability to express themselves, they can grapple with difficult subjects and understand different perspectives.

Because tweens are separating from their parents, entering into puberty and interacting with media more independently, they come into contact with violent video games, pornography, distressing news and hate speech. They need to be able to discuss things without feeling shame or embarrassment.

  • Wait for the right moment. At this age, kids are still very likely to come to you if they've heard about something frightening. You can feel them out to decide if they want to discuss something, but if they don't bring it up, don't feel you have to broach difficult subjects until they ask.
  • Find out what they know. Ask your kids what they've heard, or if their friends at school are talking about something. Answer questions simply and directly, but try not to over-explain—that could make them more scared.
  • Create a safe space for discussion. Say, "these topics are hard to discuss, even for adults. Let's just talk. I won't be mad, and I want you to feel free to ask anything you want."
  • Provide context and perspective. Kids need to understand the circumstances around an issue to fully make sense of it. For a mass shooting, you can say, "the person who did this had problems in his brain that confused his thoughts." For race-based crimes, try, "some people wrongly believe that light-skinned people are better than dark-skinned people. Without the correct information, they sometimes commit crimes they think are justified."
  • Address their curiosity. If your kid stumbles across grown-up material online, it might be time to find content that will let them learn about more mature subjects age-appropriately. Say, "online pornography is something that some grown-ups look at. But it's not about love or romance and it can give you the wrong idea about sex. If you want to learn more about sex, I can give you some books to look at and we can talk more if you have questions." Or if your kid wants to explore serious topics in more depth than you can provide, say, "let's find some news sources that offer current events written for kids."
  • Be sensitive to kids' emotions and temperament. You never know what may trigger your kid. Check in by sharing how you feel and ask them how they feel. Say, "I feel angry when I know that someone got hurt." Or, "It makes me feel sad to hear that someone didn't get a good education or the right treatment to help them." And, "what are you feeling right now?"
  • Encourage critical thinking. Ask open-ended questions to get kids to think more deeply about serious topics. Ask, "what did you hear?," "what did it make you think?," and "why do you think that?" For older kids, you can ask, "do you think families from other backgrounds would view this the same way as us?"
  • Look for positives. There may not be a silver lining to every cloud, but try to be optimistic. Say, "a lot of people acted like heroes at the crime scene." Or, "let's find ways that we can help."

Teens

At this age, teens are engaged in media independently by reading it, interacting with it, and even making their own and sharing it in the form of comments, videos and memes. They often hear about difficult subjects in the news or from other places, like in video game chats or on social media, without your knowledge. They're much more interested in what their friends or online folks think about an issue than in your opinion, often scrolling to the bottom of an article to read user responses before they even read the whole story. They can bristle at lectures because they think they know best so encourage them to find media that can enrich their knowledge and ask questions that prompt them to think through their arguments.

  • Encourage open dialogue. Teens need to know that they can ask questions, test their opinions and speak freely without fear of consequences. Say, "we may not agree on everything, but I'm interested in what you have to say."
  • Ask open-ended questions and ask them to support their ideas. Say, "what do you think about police brutality?," "what do you know about it?," "who do you think is at fault?," and "why do you think that?"
  • Admit when you don't know something. As kids move into the teen phase, it's okay for them to see that their parents may not have all the answers. Say, "I don't know. Let's try to find out more."
  • Get them to consider the complexities in difficult subjects. Forces including social issues, politics and tradition all contribute to making some problems seem incurable. Ask, "what makes difficult issues, such as rape, violence and crime so hard to solve?," "what key things would need to change to fix certain issues, such as poverty?," "how do policymakers get to the bottom of an issue to correct tough problems?," and "should we accept tiny changes that help a problem little by little or insist on big changes?"
  • Share your values. Let your kids know where you stand on issues and explain why you hold certain values. If you want your teens to be respectful of others' differences, for example, explain why you value tolerance and acceptance.
  • Talk about "their" news. Prompt them to consider how different sources put their own spin on the issues and how that influences an audience's opinion of an issue. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat tend to serve up content from friends with stories that tend to confirm one point of view. How do these stories compare to news broadcasts on TV? How about sources designed for millennials, like Vice and Vox that feature reporters investigating stories in the trenches? Ask, "does a reporter have to experience that situation to be able to report a story on opiate addiction?"
  • Ask what they would do if they were in a really difficult situation? Teens are figuring out their own identities and can seek out risk. Considering how they would act if confronted with a terrible reality appeals to their own sense of adventure and is a way to get them to grapple with ethical dilemmas and see themselves making good choices. Say, "if you were caught in a political demonstration that turned violent and you saw people being mistreated, what would you do?"
  • Get them to consider solutions. Teens can be cynical, but they can also be idealistic. If anything is going to get better, it's this generation who's going to do it. Show them that you trust them for the job. Ask, "If you were in charge, what issue would you solve first and why -- and how would you do it?"

Originally posted on Common Sense Media.

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

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Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

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Balance board

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Detective set

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This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

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Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

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Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

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Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

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Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

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Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

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Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

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The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

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Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

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Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

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10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

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