“What does the word divorce mean, mamma?”
This sudden question from my nine-year-old, in the middle of an animated discussion about school, left me stumped. My mind started racing and going back to where he could have possibly heard the word.
Did either the husband or I utter it nonchalantly some time without bothering to check if the children were around? Or did my son hear about it in school, from a friend or a TV show, or come across it in a book?
But I didn’t have much time to think. My son was right there, looking at me with his innocent eyes, asking the same question again.
I took a deep breath and, without letting my face show any emotion, told him that it was when the parents decided to live in separate houses. “Oh,” he said, “that means they must have had a fight.”
He then went back to his play, leaving me astounded by this simple understanding of something so complex. Though he did not possibly grasp the full meaning of what he said, he did hit the nail on the head.
Children can surprise us with their depth of understanding and sensitivity. And as they grow, their questions about life and its intricacies too multiply. Many times, parents don’t know how best to communicate: especially when they need to broach sensitive topics or when the children come up with questions that are difficult to answer.
What can one do at such a time?
“Sensitive topics require a lot of sensitivity on the part of the parent as one has to think about the age of the child, the maturity and also get the timing right,” says Dr Anupam Sibal, paediatrician and group medical director, Apollo Hospitals, Delhi. “This is definitely not easy but has to be done as part of a parent’s job. So, seek help from a professional, if need be, on how to approach such topics.”
Satinder Kaur Walia, a child psychologist associated with BLK Super Speciality Hospital and Max Hospital, Gurugram, Haryana, agrees. “Each kid is different,” says Walia. “There is no fixed way to broach a sensitive topic, but it really depends on your parenting style. So, if you have a comfortable relationship with your kids, you can approach this much better. It is important to listen and give them space to say what they want to, and the earlier one builds communication with the kid, [the more] beneficial [it is]. From the time they are small, they should be able to tell you things and talk to you about anything. And as they grow older, their confidence in you will grow and they will not resent you talking to them about things that concern you and give both of you better communication and understanding. About issues like sex, one should begin to talk to them when they are around 11 or 13 as that is the time when physical changes happen in the body.”
Talking to children about sensitive or tough topics is not easy. The subjects can range from sex, menstruation and bodily changes to bullying, dating, divorce, drugs and death.
Most parents fumble through, saying the wrong things or managing to look foolish. And yet, they do not want to let the children flounder in the dark or get half-baked information from their friends or the internet, and feel they must help their children.
Knowing how to walk this tightrope successfully is what good parenting is all about.
Delhi resident Kavya Behl, mother to 17-year-old Aryan and 15-year-old Kiara, says parental involvement is necessary. “It was not easy for us to discuss the topic of sex, but I did bring it up and my son was comfortable discussing it the way the teacher in school had put it,” she says. “But it was not the same with my daughter. It was hilarious to hear her questions popping up and me trying to keep a straight face as I explained. These days, social media can also help create awareness. I have even spoken to my son about the menstruation cycle as I wanted him to be more sensitive towards girls. I feel our talk has helped.”
“The talks should be all about the children’s time and their space and not vice versa because they must be comfortable discussing it with you,” says Chinmaya Saxena, an IT professional who lives in Noida, Uttar Pradesh and is a parent to two teenagers. “One should talk about sensitive matters just like any other ordinary conversation to not make the situation uncomfortable. Parents should be more in a listening mode than in a judgemental one as that can cause kids to clam up.”
The right way
Talking is important because the child must know where and to whom to turn for help.
“I believe that one of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects,” says Dr Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant, mental health and psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. “But in the age of constant notifications, streaming video and 24-hour news coverage, when even your little kids are exposed to serious stories, it is important to face this challenge head-on. Addressing the tough situations and questions 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. Additionally, it is important to address your kids’ questions and fears as and when needed.”
Before talking to your child:
- Find a place and time that is comfortable for your child.
- Figure out what you are going to talk about. Different topics will require a different time as you cannot pile them all up at the same time.
- Before you begin talking, be gentle and sensitive to what they may have to say and be in a listening mode. Be gentle when advising or giving suggestions too, instead of being judgmental and coming down heavy on them with your viewpoints and decisions.)
- Kids of different ages will require diverse ways of talking, but what always works is giving them a safe space and allowing them to voice their thoughts and opinions (more than having your say.)
- Speak to other parents about how they manage such situations.
- Your relationship with your child is the biggest deal-breaker. If you have a comfortable one from before, things get easier and better.
- You could begin by asking about the topic at hand and if they know about it or want to discuss it. Only when there is a little willingness, should you go in to discuss further. It will not work if they clam up and you try to be forceful. Your talk may not be successful the first time, but do keep trying.
- Even in awkward moments, keep the conversation easy and have realistic expectations.
- Give them as much time since they could be nervous talking about sensitive matters.
- When they ask you a question, answer as honestly as possible. This will help strike a chord with them better than rehearsed run-of-the-mill answers.
Children need a safe and loving environment to become happy, confident adults. To get there they will sometimes need to talk to someone trustworthy and mature for advice or support. And if they can turn to their parents, that might just be the best thing for both parties.