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How to talk with your children about difficult topics at any age—from 2-year-olds to teenagers

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One of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects. It's hard enough to explain when Mr. Teddy Bear gets eaten by the washing machine. Or, how their bike got stolen at school. But, it feels impossible to put into words the really big issues, such as violence, racism, drugs and other weighty topics.


But in the age of cell phone 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.

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When your kids learn about something scary or unsettling, say, a mass shooting, a suicide on a popular TV show, or a graphic porn via an innocent Google search, 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.

For example, young children are very literal. If you tell them a monster is under the bed, they'll fly across the room to avoid getting their ankles munched. Try that with a teen, and they'll tell you to take a flying leap. 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.

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So far 2020 has been a year of big changes for Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Earlier this month the royal couple announced plans step back and senior members of the royal family. Initially, the plan was for the couples to retain their royal tiles and raise their "son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born" while also give themselves the space to work and live in North America.

But sometimes, young parents have to make tough choices to do what's best for their new family and that can mean making changes that impact your family of origin.

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This weekend the Queen announced that her family has found a way for Harry and Meghan to move forward, and it means they're not only not senior royals anymore, they do not have HRH titles (His Royal Highness or Her Royal Highness) anymore and "are no longer working members of the Royal Family."

The statement from the Queen reads, in part: "Following many months of conversations and more recent discussions, I am pleased that together we have found a constructive and supportive way forward for my grandson and his family.

"Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family.

"I recognise the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life.

"I want to thank them for all their dedicated work across this country, the Commonwealth and beyond, and am particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.

"It is my whole family's hope that today's agreement allows them to start building a happy and peaceful new life."

The Queen's statement explains that Harry and Meghan have "shared their wish to repay Sovereign Grant expenditure for the refurbishment of Frogmore Cottage, which will remain their UK family home."

Basically, they're serious about being financially independent and they're going to pay rent on the cottage.

Untangling family issues can be hard, and it is hard for anyone to imagine what it must be like to live this out on the world's stage. In her statement, the Queen said she understands the role the intense press scrutiny has played in the couple's decision to forge a new path, and that they will always be her family.

Whether you're leaving the royal family to move to Canada, or just trying to explain to your parents that your own family needs to move to another state, this stuff is hard.

Here's to a new chapter in 2020, for Harry and Meghan and all the other new parents who are writing their own stories.

News

Motherhood is a juggling act. Whether you have one child or many, work outside the home or don't, have a partner or are doing this whole thing solo, you are always juggling something. So how on earth do we keep up the act? How do we ensure no ball gets dropped?

We don't.

All of us, every single one, lets something slip through our fingers on some occasion or another. And that's totally okay.

A friend from college recently commented on Instagram how peaceful and sweet my children seemed. I laughed out loud, and not an endearing chuckle, a wholehearted cackle. What a glorious and erroneous idea that my children are peaceful and sweet. I have three of these beautiful monsters, ages 12, 5 and 4 months. Our house sounds more like a child run circus than a zen meditation retreat.

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It is true that my children are sweet at times. And I will admit I try very hard to create a peaceful life and home, but those are not the two words I would ever use to describe our family. I might choose words like rambunctious, spirited, passionate and intense.

What I realized as I simultaneously smiled and snorted in laughter, was that I put a lot of work into creating a life on social media that looks just like that. Peaceful and sweet. I choose my words carefully, I edit my photos and of course choose only the best ones, the ones where everyone is smiling and we appear to love each other. The pictures of my children pulling each other's hair, stealing snacks and shouting that they hate each other don't get quite as many likes.

Don't get me wrong—my children often smile and we do love each other very much. But by carefully curating the life I post on social media I have unintentionally created something laughable. What a jolt to realize the very thing I'm striving for makes me laugh out loud when someone names it. Is there anything more inauthentic than that?

I am working to strive for authenticity and perfect imperfection.

I make mistakes, hurt those I love, burn dinner and that is what makes me human.

I drop the ball every single day in some large or small way—and that's okay. It is to be expected really.

It's what can give us the gift of connection. We can connect with one another via our faults and our vulnerabilities. We starve ourselves of this by pretending to be perfect.

As I write this I'm sitting in the front seat of my car in the parking lot of our local skate park, my youngest is napping in his car seat, my oldest is wearing a helmet and pads and is driving his new BMX bike as fast as he can up and down hills and ramps set at odd angles with weird curves among them.

This moment feels ideal t. The breeze blows through my open windows as my oldest is getting a great workout and my youngest slowly wakes up cooing.

We can only enjoy the moment if we are present within it. When I live my life constantly in a state of distraction, constantly keeping my eyes on all the balls I'm juggling, I'm not enjoying any of it.

I am not a master juggler at this moment in life. I don't think what I'm doing even looks like juggling. I do not have my eyes on all the balls, I am not even attempting to catch or toss them all in that perfect arc that looks so magical.

I prefer to relish these kinds of moments, soak up their joy, their peace, their sweetness and to do that I have to let go of the charade, I have to accept imperfection in the form of letting some balls drop.

I want to live a life full of authenticity and joy in the simple moments.

I want to live without the pressure of doing it all.

I want to give myself the gift of not doing everything the way it should be done by the imagined deadlines that cannot be met.

I want to enjoy my rambunctious, passionate children.

So I let the ball drop—and I'm okay with that.

Life

Feeding your new baby can be a beautiful experience, but it can also be really hard. We at Motherly have talked about it. Amy Schumer has talked about it. And now Kate Upton is talking about it, too.

Upton and her husband Justin Verlander became parents when their daughter Genevieve was born in November 2018, and in a new interview with Editorialist, Upton explains that while she loves motherhood she didn't always love breastfeeding.

"Having VeVe has changed my life in such a wonderful way," she explains, adding that in the early days of motherhood she felt "so much pressure"..."to be doing all these things, like breastfeeding on the go—when the reality, for me, was that breastfeeding was sucking the energy away from me. I realized I needed to calm down, to allow my body to recover."

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Breastfeeding can take up a lot of a mama's time and energy in those early weeks and months, and while Upton doesn't explicitly say whether she switched to formula, combo fed, pumped or what, it's clear that she did give herself some grace when it came to breastfeeding and found the right parenting pace by taking the pressure off of herself.

Upton took the pressure off herself when it came to her demanding breastfeeding schedule, and she's also resisting the pressure to keep up with a social media posting schedule.

"I want to be enjoying my life, enjoying my family, not constantly trying to take the perfect picture," she says. "I think my husband wants me to throw my phone away. We talk about it in the house all the time: 'Let's have a phone-free dinner.' We don't want [our daughter] thinking being on the phone is all that life is."

Whether the pressure to be perfect is coming from your phone or from society's conflicting exceptions of mothers it's a force worth rejecting. Upton is loving life at her own pace, imperfect as reallife can be.

News

After the treat-filled sugar rush of holidays and birthdays, it can be hard to get back on track with eating healthy as a family. (What can I say, I love cake—and my kids do, too.) It's totally okay to hold your boundary for sugar in your kid's diet, no matter what that boundary is. And you can do it without being the bad guy.

Putting a positive spin on "the sugar issue" (letting kids know that they can have treats sometimes, but not all. the. time.) will help prevent sugar becoming an ongoing power struggle, which nobody wants.

Here are a few phrases that can help your kids eat less sugar, without creating a power struggle over treats:

1. "Holiday and birthday treats are so fun, but they're not for every day."

Acknowledge that all of the extra treats were fun (they were!). You can talk about how some foods are for special occasions and others are the ones we eat every day to have strong bodies and feel good.

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2. "I feel so much better when I eat lots of fruits and vegetables."

Instead of putting the emphasis on why sugar is bad, try focusing on all the good reasons to eat healthy foods. You can talk about how eating carrots gives us strong eyes, eating oranges keeps us from getting sniffles, or eating kale helps us feel good and have lots of energy for playing.

3. "Which fruit would you like to have with your lunch?"

Keep it fun by letting your child choose which healthy foods to eat. Two or three choices are fine. You can let them help pick at the grocery store or let them pick from the options you've selected—the important thing is to offer choice.

4. "Let's see if we can make a rainbow on your plate!"

Who doesn't love rainbows, especially among the under-six crowd? Use their universal appeal to your advantage and encourage kiddos to make their own edible rainbows.

Make it extra fun by writing a checklist with colored pencils, one checkbox for every rainbow color, and bringing it with you to the grocery store. Let your child choose one item from the produce section for every color.

5. "You can choose one treat with dinner, but candy isn't a choice for snack today."

Make sure kids know that they will still be able to enjoy treats sometimes. Instead of saying "candy makes you crazy," or "sugar rots your teeth," just let them know when you're okay with them having a treat. It may be every night after dinner, only on Friday nights, or it may not be until Valentine's Day, but having a clear boundary will help reduce the constant pleas for sweet treats.

6. "I think treats feel more special when we don't have them every day."

Talk to your child about how part of the fun of holiday treats is that they're out of the ordinary. They are special traditions we get to enjoy each year and they help make the holidays feel magical. Just as it wouldn't be as fun if we had a Christmas tree up all year or wore a Halloween costume every day, treats aren't as fun if we eat them nonstop.

7. "I hear that you really want candy. I can't let you have it right now, but it's okay to be disappointed."

Let your child know that you empathize with their feelings about not being able to eat what they want all of the time.

Sometimes children just need to be heard. It might be more important to them to know that you understand their feelings about treats than to actually get a treat.

8. "Let's think of a healthy treat we could get at the grocery store next week."

Brainstorm with your child and come up with a list of healthy treats you could bring home from your next grocery shopping trip. This might be a kind of fruit they haven't had in a while, a granola bar you don't usually buy, or the makings of a fun trail mix.

Part of the fun of treats is the ritual—you can still enjoy the sweetness without the extra sugar.

9. "Would you like to bake with me?"

Carry those fond memories of making Christmas cookies together into the new year to help wean kids off the holiday high of constant treats. Just find something you're okay with your child eating regularly, like a healthy muffin recipe, baked oatmeal, or energy bites—whatever meets your own nutritional guidelines for your family!

10. "I noticed you didn't sleep well when you ate those treats before nap time. Let's think of a better time for treats together."

You can explain the effects of sugar on the body without vilifying it. Sometimes just saying sugar is bad makes it all the more desirable or pits you against your child. But that doesn't mean you can't give them the facts. Just tell them plainly that sugar makes it harder for them to sleep well, makes it harder for them to concentrate, or whatever other effects you've seen.

Here's to a healthy 2020—you've got this, mama!

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