5 ways to have tough conversations with your kids, even (and especially) when you don’t know what to say.
We all have difficult conversations with our kids from time to time…tough conversations that start with questions like “where do babies come from”, “why do kids pick on me”, “why should I believe in God” or “why am I different”. We dread these conversations, and sometimes fret and worry about when they will happen. In our often busy and over scheduled lives these questions can arise at inconvenient times and we brush them off, or give a short answer that leaves us feeling frustrated and our kids feeling like maybe they should go elsewhere for answers. This, my friends, is where the danger lies. We want to be the “safe place” our kids can come to for answers. We want them to seek US out to ask the hard questions, and we want to be ready.
So what can we do to prepare? My friend Erin Isgett has some advice for you that comes in a simple story she shared this week.
We all have women we watch from afar and admire, right? I’m not talking about celebrities, but the women we see at church, or school who just seem to have it all figured out. Or maybe, its obvious they DON’T have it figured out, and you admire them because they just keep going and don’t pretend. I have so many women like this in my life. Women that I wish I knew better, and try to learn from with every encounter.
One of these women is Erin Isgett. She is truly an amazing person! She is well educated, and intelligent. She has a masters degree in Social Work and worked with the developmental disabilities community, specifically kids, teens, and young adults with autism, for 10 years. She is a runner, which to me is always amazing since I can’t run to the kitchen without getting winded. And,most importantly in my mind, she is a great mother. She has 3 beautiful children who are BRILLIANT. For the record I LOVE the word brilliant. It means so much more than just smart, and describes her and her children perfectly. Joshua, her oldest, has these eyes that just shine when he talks to you- especially about cars, which he is passionate about.
The following is written by Erin, regarding a conversation she had with her son that she had been anticipating for a long time. She had worried and fretted about what she would say when the time came, and you know what? This potentially tough conversation went much differently than she expected.
I just had one of the best conversations with Joshua…EVER. I always tuck him in last because he always asks, “Mama, can you lay down with me for just a minute?” Sometimes he just wants to tell me something he enjoyed from the day or ask a funny question or tell me about a car or Star Wars fact. But sometimes, he asks something or says something that starts a really amazing conversation. Tonight, whoa…tonight was a night I’ve been anticipating for a while…wondering when it might come up and what I’d end up saying.
Joshua told me how much fun he’d had during the day, and that he was really glad it was sunny so he could play outside with Leah when she got home from school. I told him that made me happy too, but it made me sad that he and Leah seemed to be arguing a lot as they played in the backyard. He said, “But Mama, she wouldn’t share the rope swing with me! I’d ask her for a turn, and she’d say, “Never!” and I’d get upset.” I suggested he tell her how that makes him feel, because she may not realize it hurts his feelings so much. I explained that sometimes Leah says something or does something that hurts my feelings, and when I say, “Leah, that really hurt my feelings and made me feel sad,” she immediately apologizes and says, “Mommy, I don’t want to make you feel sad–I want to make you feel happy because I love you!” Joshua asked me, “But Mama, why doesn’t she know that it makes us sad?”
“I thought for a minute, and then just started speaking from my heart”
I thought for a minute, and then just started speaking from my heart. I told Joshua that some people are really good at reading and spelling and memorizing things, while other people struggle with those skills, and that other people are really good at understanding how their actions affect others or being able to imagine what someone else is thinking. I told him that I was going to tell him about two words that he’s probably heard before, but may not know exactly what they mean. I told him that “autistic” people can often have great memories, read and learn things easily, and understand complex things. I asked if he knew anyone like that. “Hmmm, I think maybe me,” he said. “Yep! You’re exactly right! And Leah, too,” I said. Joshua excitedly said, “I think Hermione too!” I laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought about her, but you may be right.” I explained to Joshua that with all of those amazing strengths, that sometimes other things can be hard for autistic people, like always understanding how their words or actions make other people feel. “Like Leah sometimes?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “but isn’t it awesome that when you tell her, she wants to immediately make you feel better?” We also talked about some of our favorite friends who are autistic, and he thought that was pretty cool.
Then I explained that while some people are autistic, which means their brains work one way, that other people are neurotypical, which means their brains work another way. I told Joshua that while he’s autistic and I’m neurotypical, we can use our strengths to help each other out. “Oh, neurotypical…that’s spelled N-E-U-R-O-T-Y-P-I-C-A-L. And it’s okay, because we’re still BFFs, Mama.” I laughed and said, “I’m surprised you could spell that big word…actually, no, no I’m not surprised at all! And yes, we are definitely BFFs, buddy.”
“I reminded him that whenever he has any questions about anything, he can always come to me and I’ll be a safe place to get answers, and if I don’t know the answer, we can figure it out together”
I reminded him that whenever he has any questions about anything, he can always come to me and I’ll be a safe place to get answers, and if I don’t know the answer, we can figure it out together. “Like about autistic and neurotypical…and Jabba the Hutt?” he asked. “Exactly,” I said.
And that was how I finally had the conversation with Joshua about autism. I never wanted it to be a forced, sit-down, eye-to-eye talk, leading him to think I was delivering some kind of “bad news.” And it was perfect. It was snuggling in the covers, giggling, heartfelt, and simple. I had always wondered how we’d first discuss it, and though I never envisioned Hermione Granger or Jabba the Hutt being a part of the conversation, now that we’ve had it, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t know what comes after this, and I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that my boy went to bed tonight thinking that he’s pretty cool and that his mama loves him very much, and he’s so, so right on both counts.
So, what do you think? How can we have conversations with our children that come from our hearts? How can we be a safe place to get answers for them? I think the answers lie in the very first part of Erin’s Story. She made time. She tucked her other sweet babies into bed first and made time in what must be an amazingly busy schedule, to talk to her son. To listen to whatever he had to say. Typically these conversations aren’t deep soul searching moments, but they are conversations about things that matter to HIM.
By establishing the pattern with her son, that what matters to HIM matters to HER, Erin opened the doorway for her son to confide in her about the big things too.
That open door led to a beautiful conversation between a mother and child. A conversation that is just the beginning of many more to come. Joshua is only 7, and as he gets older his questions will get deeper and more difficult. How do I know this? Because I have a 12 year old who still wants that time each night after his siblings have gone to bed, time to talk. I cherish that time! I have confidence that as Joshua grows up, Erin will be there, snuggled up next to him each night, ready to talk. She won’t pretend to know all the answers. And I think that is a big key as well. When we let go of the idea that we are supposed to know everything, we free ourselves to find the right answers WITH our children, instead of FOR them.
So- To recap here are 5 ways you can improve those tough conversations with your child.
#1 Be there. Make the time to talk to your children
#2 Just Listen. Listen to the little things. It gets tedious when they are little and most conversations are about star wars, or for my kids it was transformers, or what they did at school that day. But establishing that what they say is important to you now will pay off as they get older. Sometimes they don’t WANT answers- or analysis…they just want you to listen to them.
#3 Trust your heart. The best planned out conversation with facts and figures is going to mean less than a simple conversation that comes straight from your heart.
#4 Admit you don’t know everything. To yourself, and to your child. They already know it, and it helps when you admit it and learn together instead of blustering your way through an answer that you don’t really know.
#5 Trust your kids to find their own answers. This is a hard one. My son came to me about a year ago with doubts about our religion and faith. I wanted to just shove all of my own personal knowledge into his head. Instead I had to show him how to get his own answers and listen patiently as he went through his own process of understanding.
Erin Isgett, a mom who finds ways to have tough conversations with her kids
Do you have advice to add? Do you have a story to share about a time you were able to have an amazing conversation with your own child? We would love to hear it! Share on our Facebook page, or drop a comment.