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

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.

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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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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