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Tips for Having Difficult Conversations with Youth

As a new mom, I want to believe that I can protect my son from experiencing anything scary or harmful. But realistically, I know that I can’t keep him in a bubble. Instead, I can support him by talking and listening to him as he grows up and encounters the world. Whether it’s being bullied or hearing news about a school shooting or some other frightening incident, he will need to explore and talk about how he feels in age-appropriate ways to help him feel safe and cope with the events around him.

Here are some tips for having these difficult conversations:

Find an appropriate time and location – These conversations can be intense and can vary in length. Finding a safe space and an appropriate time that the youth is comfortable will encourage the authentic exploration of feelings. For my son, this could mean talking while we play in the backyard before dinner or during a car ride to run errands over the weekend. For an older teen, this could be talking over a meal, while playing basketball together or some other enjoyable activity that allows them to concentrate on the conversation.

Initiate the conversation – Just the act of reminding our youth that we are interested and listening to them can open the door to a world of conversations. As adults, we don’t need to outline the agenda or even the topic of the conversation. Simply expressing that we are present and ready to listen extends the invitation and demonstrates that we are invested in their wellbeing. My husband and I have built this into our son’s bedtime routine–we reflect together on the day’s events and think about the day ahead. As our son grows we hope that by keeping this door to conversation open he will always feel secure in seeking us out when he needs support.

Remember that age matters – While youth of all ages need to explore their feelings, they may do so in different ways. Younger children may express themselves through play or art while older youth may have the language skills to express themselves verbally. Letting the youth lead in how they explore their feelings ensures they can fully explore thoughts and feelings without being restricted by the adult’s expectations. My son is still an infant so he expresses himself through crying and more frequently, smiling and laughter. My toddler-aged niece and nephew are more likely to act out their emotions with their toys and physical actions like stomping and shouting. Each of these youth will one day be able to sit and talk about their thoughts—until then, they need the adults around them to respect that they can and will express themselves in the ways available to them.

Listen Authentically – As adults we often think we know best because we have many more years of experience than our youth. This can lead us to interrupting, offering advice, and dismissing our youths’ ideas rather than truly listening to them. When we listen authentically we are not only hearing our youth but are striving to understand them while simultaneously modeling how to be supportive. It may mean biting our tongues, letting our youth lead, and attempting to understand them from their perspective rather than through our own adult worldview.

Agree to Disagree – Youth look to learn from adults but also want and need to develop their own opinions and beliefs. Expressing our thoughts and feelings appropriately when talking with youth helps model healthy coping and exposes them to various worldviews. It is important to approach difficult conversations with an understanding that it is okay to disagree. I know there will come a day when my son expresses an idea that I see as silly, misinformed, or otherwise incorrect. Instead of belittling his idea, I hope to share my own thoughts and give him space to learn and grow using a wealth of information from which to draw his own thoughts and beliefs.

Be Aware of Signs of Distress – Experiencing a range of emotions including grief, anger, anxiety and stress is normal and healthy. Every youth, like every adult, will experience these emotions differently and will react and express themselves as individuals. It is important as parents and caregivers that we invest the time and energy to learn about our youth so we know what is within their normal range of expression and when something has changed significantly or continued for longer than usual. Youth are developmentally still learning how to handle intense emotions and may need an adult to offer new ideas or ways to cope. As parents, we may not always know what new ideas or tools to introduce. Seeking professional help and resources may be necessary. Resources like EveryMind’s Hotline (301.738.2255) can provide guidance and information to help us confidently support our youth even when we are still learning ourselves.

Take Care of Yourself – Part of growing up is learning how to handle intense or difficult emotions and thoughts. We may not be experts, but as adults we do have many more years of experience and developmental growth in this area than youth. By taking care of ourselves through activities that help us process our own emotions we can empower ourselves to approach difficult conversations in a calm and controlled manner. It also models real-world solutions and tools for our youth. When my son’s crying grates on my nerves, I practice deep breathing and seek my husband’s support to take breaks from being the primary caregiver. As my son grows, I hope to continue modeling self-care by ensuring that I set aside time to re-energize myself through exercise and spending time with family and friends. It truly is the everyday practice of putting on my own air mask before I can assist someone else to put on theirs.

As parents and caregivers, we are frontline defenders in helping our youth feel safe and empowered in what can feel like a chaotic and out of control world. This requires us to be engaged with and invested in our youth, to have difficult conversations, and to acknowledge that the world can be both exciting and terrifying. By listening, sharing our views, and being supportive we can start any conversation with our youth and together find a path forward.