Talking to Kids About Difficult Topics? Start With These 5 Steps

Two developmental psychologists share insights on how to talk to kids about hard topics like climate change and more.
mother and daughter looking at a tablet together and talking
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On any given day, a child will have innumerable questions about anything and everything, from global events to soccer practice. Kids are smart—they know when something’s going on.

Learning is a crucial part of growing up, but it can also be hard, especially with densely complex topics that are hard and emotionally taxing to teach, like climate change or racial justice.

Speaking separately to Dr. Ross Thompson, a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Davis, and Emily Neer, a PhD candidate in UCLA’s Developmental Psychology program, the experts offered insights and tips for parents and other adults broaching this territory.

Meet Them Where They Are

Both Thompson and Neer have the same answer when asked about “appropriate ages” and that is: “Meet the child where they are.”

A more honest conversation with a teenager, which aids in developing processing skills, would not be “developmentally appropriate” for a younger child, says Thompson.

“Follow your child's lead and engage with them in whatever they are engaged in,” Neer says. “Do they like being outside? Go for a hike and talk about what you see.”

All Feelings Are Valid

No matter the child’s age, their feelings are valid and must be acknowledged.

This can be hard, warns Neer, because as parents it is “easy to dominate the conversation, especially if the topic is complex” or bringing up negative emotions. That’s why letting the child lead the conversation is key, as it prioritizes their feelings and questions.

To do this, Neer suggests asking the child questions or encouraging them to share related memories and feelings as a way of directing the conversation.

“The last thing a parent wants to do is inflict an awareness on the child of that age that the world is changing in bad ways,” Thompson says. “The general guideline is to be reassuring, but honest and realistic, so you don’t leave a child without a means of coping with their own thoughts and questions.”

Encourage Media Literacy

We get information from everywhere – the internet, school or work, social media, friends, and family members, media. It’s important to make sure the information we’re taking in and sharing is accurate, especially with more upsetting topics.

“When children read or see information, they assume it must be true,” says Thompson.

That’s why it’s crucial as an adult to help children develop discernment and media literacy in order to independently engage with a story’s accuracy, credibility, or bias.

Neer recommends researching answers together, as a way of modeling to children that it’s okay not to have every answer and how to ask the right questions. In fact, Dr. Candice Mills found in her study “Why Do Dogs Pant?” about parental explanations that “the more frequently parents referred to looking things up, the more likely they were to acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge… and the less likely they were to provide inaccurate information.” Mills concluded this helps with children’s long-term learning.

If a child comes to you with misinformation, go back to the reassuring guideline. Criticizing or expressing shock at the child’s information may result in feelings of embarrassment and humiliation.

Together, try these three tips from the News Literacy Project:

  • Research the source—and the sources quoted in the piece you’re looking at to make sure they’re credible
  • Ask yourselves: What is the slant of the article and what is it trying to accomplish? Is it meant simply to inform, or to persuade?
  • Do a web search to see if other credible sources are reporting the same thing.

You May Need Help, Too

They say it takes a village for a reason.

Many topics related to current events are not only upsetting to children, but adults as well, and can darkly affect anyone’s mental health. It is important in holding space for these conversations that the adult is taking care of themselves first. As the saying goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Both Thompson and Neer support adults seeking individual therapy or medication for themselves, if need be, as well as other stress relievers like exercise, fresh air, meditation, and more.

In addition, make sure you have an open line of communication with the other adults in a child’s life like their teachers, relatives, and caregivers, as different people may be more comfortable being the person to tackle different topics. For neurodivergent children and children with disabilities, it is especially important to rely on your pediatrician for help.

Address the Child’s Needs

Finally, before you venture forth into helping a child learn and understand big ideas, you need to make sure their needs are met.

Thompson sheds light on a tool for this purpose: the reflective function. Practicing your reflective function means becoming “aware of yourself at the same time that you’re aware of what’s going on with the child,” he explains.

If a child is upset, what is motivating those negative emotions and what do they need to combat them? How does the child’s distress make you feel, and is this affecting your response to them? Understanding a child’s feelings and needs as well as the adult’s own feelings in the moment helps adults calibrate their responses to the child more thoughtfully. They can respond with greater insight into the child’s feelings as well as their own, and often be more helpful.

If it’s information or answers, practicing media literacy together will help. Or maybe more tangible action and hands-on learning can quell nerves, so go out and compost together or clean up a beach. Or a break and a snack.

Ultimately, talking to kids about complex ideas is easiest when you’re on the same team. By researching together, listening, and validating a kid’s vast emotional range, they will be better equipped to process ideas that are potentially frightening or complicated.

From Green American Magazine Issue