Every parent grapples with the "best" way to respond to those difficult questions that inevitably pop up as children get older. It's often hard to develop an explanation that will provide accurate information, and yet be appropriate to your child's age and maturity level. And let's face it—sometimes certain questions are just plain uncomfortable.
Yet parents are the best resource a child has—and experts agree that developing an established pattern of open communication right from the start can give your son or daughter a healthy base of security, and the ability to make sound decisions in future years. But if parents communicate the message that "you can't talk to me about that," children will seek their answers elsewhere.
There is no magic answer for every question your son or daughter asks, but here are some guidelines that can help you address these questions with confidence and success.
Establish a habit of open communication at the beginning of your child's life. Even before she can properly phrase a question, explain things to her constantly. Simply hearing language encourages vocabulary and communication. Children's first questions often consist of two words such as "Go bye-bye?" or "More cookie?" Instead of responding with a simple "yes" or "no", respond with an explanation using full sentences.
For example, in response to the question "Go bye-bye?" you might say, "Yes, it's time to go to the store. We need to pick up some food for dinner. Do you want to help mommy?" Frequent dialogue throughout these formative years will encourage healthy communication patterns. In addition, children learn that parents are a resource for having their questions answered.
Parenting is a full time job. Between carpools, laundry, helping with homework, and the many other exhausting tasks of being a parent, taking time to answer your child's questions carefully and thoughtfully is sometimes the last thing you have energy for. When you find yourself getting frustrated because you don't have time to answer their questions, take that as a cue that you need to reserve time for this purpose.
However, you can also make the most of the time you have together to foster communication. Mealtime, bedtime, and rides in the car can be excellent opportunities for answering your child's questions. Tamara, a mother of two young teenagers says, "We have our best conversations in the car. Sometimes I get tired of driving them to school, ball practice, their friends' house, and everywhere; but this is when he really opens up. He tells me more when we're in the car, than any other time. We don't have the distraction of the phone and TV. When he gets his license, I'll really miss these conversations."
Stop what you are doing, look her in the eye, and focus on what your child is saying and asking. Children will be drawn to whomever they perceive as taking an interest in them. If they sense that their parents don't have time, are not interested, or are uncomfortable answering their questions, they will find their answers elsewhere.
Amanda, age 16, states, "I hate it when I ask my mom a question and she just keeps working on her computer. I get mad at her and she tells me she's still thinking, and she'll get back to me. But she never does." In addition to carefully focusing on the question, also take note of what they aren't asking. This can be helpful in understanding them better.
A child's innocence is often reflected through his questions. Questions such as "Where do babies come from?" and "Is grandpa going to die?" are questions that deserve an honest answer, yet many adults are tempted to give false or vague answers in an effort to protect the child from the truth.
Children are seeking to make sense of their world. Even though the reality of life is sometimes difficult for anyone to face, giving children false information only confuses their sense of reality and creates distrust. Eventually they will be faced with the truth. Consider their age, experience, and maturity then present them with an honest and developmentally appropriate answer. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to that question" when it's the most honest response. Then discuss how you can explore the answer together.
Balancing the truth and your child's stage of development can be a challenge. Children learn best when they can base new information on existing knowledge. Therefore, when you are answering your child's question, consider what is already familiar to her. This can be a guide as you explain the answer.
To be effective, you need to be a credible source. If your child is asking questions about topics such as drugs, sex, abortion, be sure you are well informed. Your advice will be most credible in the eyes of your child when you give them accurate and current information. Don't just rely on your own experiences and/or personal assumptions. Investigate the facts. If you need time to do this, be honest with your child and let him or her know that you need to get more information. Children will respect your perspective more when they know it is based on facts, and that you care enough to invest time in them as well as their questions.
Janelle, a mother of two girls, Morgan, age 6 and Elli, age 8, learned this lesson first hand. At age 6, Morgan approached her mother with the question "What is a rapist?" She thought carefully, then responded by telling her that a rapist is someone who touches you where you don't want to be touched. Morgan seemed satisfied with this explanation. The following morning as Morgan was saying goodbye to her mother, she said "Bye Mommy, I hope no one rapes your eyes today."
At that point her mother realized that her explanation was not clear and had been misunderstood. Over the next several months, Janelle began explaining the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual experiences. With this as a background, Janelle was able to give a more clear explanation of a rapist. It is tempting to give vague explanations when we are unsure of what children know and understand. Begin by asking the child what she thinks the answer is. This can help guide parents in giving a more clear explanation.
Children need time to process information. Sometimes the questions they ask trigger a great deal of emotion and parents become eager for the child to respond in a certain way to the advice they have given. When the child feels pressure to conform, he or she will often respond with resistance. It is best to offer suggestions and further questions instead of giving orders.
Growing up is difficult. A child's perspective is often very different than a parent's perspective. Take time to consider the child's point of view. Think about his or her individual temperament, circumstances, relationships, etc. All of these issues affect the child's development. Children need to feel that they are understood, even when they can't understand themselves.