I’ve been volunteering with kids in hospitals for as long as I can remember. I often get asked for advice on how to talk to kids. But to me, it is all about communicating with kids, which I feel should be a lot more listening than talking.
I start by assuming nothing—treating the young person as though they are from a fascinating foreign land—then let them tell me what it’s like. This way, kids have the chance to share their story in their own way. You will be surprised by what is important to them if you give them a chance to talk! Here are my Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts I’ve learned over the years:
1.Don’t say, “Everything will be OK”—We all know it’s the classic “no, no,” yet it still happens far too often. Naturally we want to comfort. But saying everything will be OK stops people in their tracks. Instead, invite kids to keep going, go deeper, to cry, or rant and rave, or whatever else they need to do.
2. Do know it’s tough for everyone to talk about highly emotional topics. Pat yourself on the back for even trying. The benefit is the closeness that will come from emotional conversations will hopefully balance even the most awkward moments.
3. Do tell the truth when a child or teen asks a direct question. But do so in a way that allows for only the amount of information your child can tolerate. Let him or her take the lead. More often than not, a child wants less rather than more information. Start with shorter explanations, adding more if your child asks. When a child learns his questions will not be diverted, he is much more likely to reach out again.
4. Do remember that if a young person is missing facts or information when they are trying to process something, she may fill in the missing information with her imagination. Often what kids and teens imagine can be worse than reality. Their thoughts can be filled with misconceptions, especially if they don’t have the straight facts. Whenever possible, include young people in discussions when the subject matter has to do with them.
5. Don’t forget that siblings have their own needs too. They may have lots of questions about how their lives will change as a result of their sibling’s illness, such as “Who will come watch me in my game or pick me up at school?” “What if something happens while I am away at school?” It’s very important to create a safe space where concerns can be voiced so they can be addressed.
6. Do let kids know that it is normal to feel a lot of feelings at the same time, such as being scared and hopeful simultaneously. Perhaps you can model for them that this is normal by offering your own examples of how you feel two different ways at the same time.
7. Don’t forget to listen for feelings, which often may be buried deep within a round of questioning or bout of storytelling. Sometimes as listeners we can get caught up in details, so respond to those, rather than responding to the feelings expressed or implied.
8. Do be aware of how challenging discussions often start. Rarely does one sit a child down to discuss something important and start with, “We need to talk about something…” If the child is allowed to take the lead, they may surprise you and bring up something important that is on their mind when you least expect it, maybe while doing a project together, or during a mundane chore, or when running an errand. They may just drop a few words at first to test your reaction, then go off to play. Trust that it will come up again if it is important.
9. Don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake and the conversation didn’t turn out as planned. With some real conversations under your belt, you will do better next time.
10. And last but not least, my favorite bit of advice, borrowed from Wendy Mogul, PhD, best-selling author from her book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, When to Listen.” She asks parents to remind themselves to “WAIT,” that is, ask, “Why Am I talking?” Need I say more?