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Talking Tough Topics With Your Kids In 2021

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A professor at SMU outlines some strategies for having difficult conversations with children.

While it's hard enough for adults to take in all of the news these days; how do you help children get a handle on things like COVID-19, racism, protests over police brutality and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol?

Jodie Elder is a professor of counseling at SMU, and she talked with KERA's Justin Martin about how to guide kids through these tough times.

Interview Highlights:

On preparing for difficult conversations

Well, first and foremost, let me take a step back and say, before you broach these subjects with your children, it is so important as a parent to get on top of your own reactions, because children are evolutionarily designed to read our body language, our tone of voice, our faces, because we are their source of security and safety.

So whatever it is you need to do to get yourself in check, then you reach out to your kids and you know, if you want to sit them down, I know personally my husband and I sat our two children down and said, you're going to hear about this from your friends.

We want you to hear it from us first. So you can ask any questions that you need to ask and we can answer them for you. And so it's important for us to first elicit what they know or what they've heard and then correct any misconceptions or misinformation they might have. So they're not walking around with these false beliefs about what may be, or isn't actually happening.

On how to talk to younger kids

Starting around the age of 3 or 4, kids pick up on conversations. They hear older siblings here, or they hear conversations between parents.

I think it's important to inform them in developmentally appropriate ages from a very young age, because they worry more when they're in the dark, what they don't know, they fill in the gaps with all of these stories that they make up that may or may not be true.

It's important for us to fill those gaps with the correct information and honestly, the values that we wish to impart to them.

On talking about racism and police brutality

It's easy for white parents to say, I want to protect my children. I don't want them to know that these evil things are happening. And we're just not going to talk about it. And what that allows is for your children to uncritically, unquestionably, absorb all of the racism that we breathe in day in and day out.

We must have these conversations with our children, even though is difficult to broach the topic and say, Hey, I know you're hearing about this. Here's what's happening. Tell me what you know, tell me what you think about it. And here are our family values, though. World is not fair.

If you are a person of color, you do not have the exact opportunities. They don't have the exact opportunities you do. And that is not fair. And here is how we, as a family can do something about it because we need our younger generation to find their voice and be able to speak up when they see any quality, this is pivotal for our future. Talking with them about it, of course, in developmentally appropriate ways, but broaching the topic and sharing your family value about that is so critically important.

If you are a family of color and you need to have these very difficult conversations with your children, again, they're going to face discrimination and racism in their lives daily. And I think it's important for these conversations to be had. And to understand that it's not fair, we're still going to take the high road and make the right choice. We're not going to sink to that level. And we're going to seek out connections with people that don't look like us.

It's important for us to do that. Just like it's important for people who don't look like us to do that with us so that we together can build a better future.

Jodie Elder is a professor of counseling at Southern Methodist University.

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Justin Martin at Jmartin@kera.org. You can follow Justin on Twitter @MisterJMart.

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