Talking With Kids About Tricky Topics

Why is mummy in jail?
Is my daddy sick because he did those things to us?
Why did daddy hit mummy?
Why wasn’t mummy able to take care of us?
Why hasn’t daddy come to contact visits?
When will I be able to go home?

Children who have had difficult life experiences have many questions about their circumstances and their futures – many of which can be tricky to respond to.

They deserve clear, open, consistent and age appropriate responses – but the questions often come when we are least prepared to respond. And while workers and carers have the skills to relate with and talk to children in general, words can often fail us when we are reminded by an innocent question of the suffering and uncertainty the child in front of us has suffered.

It can be tempting to want to shield or protect kids from further hurt by not talking about what has happened in their lives. Sometimes we avoid responding because there just doesn’t seem to be a way to impart difficult – sometimes terrible – information in a way that won’t demonise a child’s birth parents and make the children feel even worse about their own lives. But avoiding the tricky topics only leaves the unanswered questions, along with a feeling of shame and secrecy about these events, and often wrong conclusions about events being ‘their fault’ whether the child is overtly told this or not.

There is no way to avoid the horrors of what some children have been victims of or exposed to. But there are ways to have these tricky conversations that are child-centred, age appropriate, don’t sugar-coat the ‘bad stuff’ and still leave the children in the best place possible to cope with the information they have been given and integrate it into their stories about themselves.

The most important thing is to PLAN for the tough conversations that you know are on their way.

Prepare yourself before the question arises. If you are working with a child whose parent is in jail, you know that the question is going to come up sooner or later. It’s much better to prepare some sort of script that you can refer back to, than to be caught unprepared when the superhero on that cartoon on TV takes the super-villain to jail and the child wants to know if their daddy in jail is a super-villain too.

Planning beforehand will allow you to feel more relaxed and able to engage when the time comes, but it also has other critical benefits. Firstly, it allows you to think about and decide beforehand how much information is appropriate to provide to a child at any given point in time. For example, with a parent in jail, you might frame it for a 5-year-old that their mummy is having the grown-up version of a ‘time out’ because she did something that wasn’t good – but you might not want to disclose details of what crime she has committed. When the child is a bit older, you may be able to add that their mummy hurt someone really badly and that’s why she’s still in jail, without having to disclose full details of the assault.

The second extra benefit of planning is that it allows all of the adults involved in a child’s life to stick to the same script when answering the same questions, including the birth families if they are involved in the child’s life and you can get them on board. So you might decide to call daddy’s drug use an ‘illness’, and then let everyone involved – caseworkers, carers, family, teachers etc – know that this is the way you want the father’s story framed. This gives the child consistency and clarity, and a feeling that the adults in their lives are working together for their benefit.

If you are a worker or a carer facing one of these tricky conversations, it’s important to know that you can ask for support. Talk to a colleague or fellow carer, to your caseworker or manager, and ask for their opinion and advice. You can also attend CCWT’s upcoming course Talking with Kids About Tricky Topics, which will be held on the August 31 at our Haymarket training venue. CCWT presenters Monica Lamelas, Terry Georgeson and Saul Nightingale will be sharing experiences of dealing with a range of tricky topics with children, and will develop some scripts you can take away to use, in a supportive and non-judgemental space.