When Bad Things Happen: Discussing Tough Topics with your Child


By Mariel Uyquiengco

No one enjoys explaining difficult topics to children. However, the pervasiveness of television, computers, and tablets has brought the news, both good and bad, right into our homes. Knowledge of natural disasters, terrorism, and violent crimes, accompanied by graphic images, can strike fear and cause anxiety in anyone, especially children. It is imperative for parents to talk to their children and put the world in a positive, safe light despite all the seemingly negative things happening around.

Adult and child psychiatrist Celine Germar, MD offers four steps to consider when discussing touchy topics with children, including sex education, child abuse, and death.

Choose the best setting to talk

There are two things to consider when getting ready to have a serious discussion with your child: there must be adequate time for the conversation and there must be no distractions. Talking during dinner or while driving might prove beneficial since both settings require everyone to be seated and inactive. The captive audience is most likely to be undistracted too.

Explain facts

Author Dr. Paul Coleman, in his book “How To Say It To Your Child When Bad Things Happen,” encourages parents to explain the facts in a straightforward manner. Consider your child’s age when explaining, according to Dr. Germar. While older children, including teenagers, may be engaged in a more detailed conversation, younger kids must be given simple explanations.

When my husband’s grandmother died and my four-year-old daughter asked why, I explained old age and death in a matter-of-fact way: “She was old and very sick. Remember, people die, especially when they are old because their bodies cannot fight their sickness anymore.”

Acknowledge your child’s feelings

Acknowledgement is an important part of the process of explaining difficult topics to children. When feelings are validated and not judged, it becomes easier to trust and share.

Sometimes, children won’t say what they are thinking. Dr. Germar recommends that parents use reflective listening to help their child. Ask questions and put into words what she might be feeling. After her great-grandmother’s death, I found my daughter sitting by herself in the dark. I sat down with her and said, “You really miss Lola, don’t you? What do you miss about her?”

Reassure your child

Dr. Germar encourages parents to refrain from reacting strongly to their children’s fears so as not to increase their anxiety. As Dr. Coleman says in his book, “Out of control emotions are not reassuring.”

Hugging and holding while talking will comfort your child and assure him that you are there for him. Avoid giving false hopes or being unrealistically optimistic when talking about a very serious matter. It carries the risk of backfiring and making matters more difficult to explain.

As the world becomes smaller, filtering what reaches our children becomes almost impossible. In explaining difficult topics to children, a parent’s attitude is crucial. Parents need to be fully present, and according to Dr. Germar, to “take great pains to be attentive to the needs of their children.”


Mariel Uyquiengco hopes to inspire parents to be their children’s first and best teacher. She does this through her blog and online children’s book shop www.thelearningbasket.com and by giving parenting seminars about early childhood development, preschool homeschool, and raising children to be readers.


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