I grew up in a home where you didn’t talk about things like sex, religion, or politics.
My entire childhood was like a stiff, polite dinner party — the kind where it just wasn’t appropriate to ask too many questions or explore too deeply the tough and embarrassing issues so many kids and families struggle with.
We would discuss conflicts here and there, but only once they became impossible to ignore, and only at a very superficial level. It’s like my older sister and I were put on a need-to-know basis.
We could always tell how uncomfortable our mom and dad felt when it came to discussing the more squeamish topics.
For example, we knew Mom had an issue with depression and anxiety. But we weren’t privy to the details behind her three suicide attempts or her intermittent week-long stays at the psych ward. Dad summarized it as a combination of her “rough childhood” and mental health condition, which she was taking medication for and working to make better. And that, believe it or not, was way more than Mom had to say about it.
And when it came to sex, puberty, and my developing female body, everything was kept pretty hush-hush.
I was in the eighth grade by the time Mom sat me down and asked if I knew the basic mechanics of sex. I told her yes, and then the conversation was over. Her relief that I’d found out how babies were made on my own (years ago) was palpable. Maybe that’s why I never felt comfortable bringing up questions about periods, masturbation, protection, or sexual orientation.
My parents did an amazing job of always showing and telling us we were loved. For that, I’m truly grateful.
But their discomfort in discussing real and raw matters left me feeling constantly confused, naive, and guilty about my sexual development. I repressed a lot of feelings because I took their example and hid a lot of my questions. It affected my ability to make wise decisions in my teens and early twenties, and because of that, I’m working hard to make sure my son is always comfortable talking to me. About anything.
Communicating about serious or embarrassing issues is never easy. Most adults struggle with it constantly — so it’s especially hard on kids who are just learning to navigate the world and all its complexities.
Learning communication skills that promote healthy development and problem-solving starts in the home. If you remind your child often that they can talk to you about anything, and you follow through on that promise when the difficult questions do start to pop up, you can build a sense of trust with your child, making them feel safe to come to you about any challenges they may experience — from school to relationships, to mental health struggles.
As a first-time mom, I knew early on that I wanted my son to feel like he could talk to me about anything (sex, religion, and politics included!).
I wanted him to see me as a mentor and a source of guidance, without me being too pushy or embarrassing about it. I looked to Mr. Levenstein, the dad in American Pie, as an inspiring source of parental openness and honesty. Keeping in mind that his character is an extreme and comical exaggeration, but loving and supportive all the same.
I recently spoke about moms answering their kiddos’ sex questions on the Creative & Passionate podcast. For me, it’s a matter of reminding my son often that he can ask me anything he likes, without pushing him into conversations he’s not ready for. At 13, he’s got questions for days. And he’s pretty comfortable talking to me right now. I’m hoping it’s something that can continue as he gets older and starts dating.
How to foster healthy communication with your children
No matter how many children you have, their ages, or how much they like or dislike talking, there are a few simple things you can do to build a healthy relationship with your child based on empathy, learning, and trust.
1. Create a space for regular check-ins
Whenever you find some one-on-one time with your kiddo, that’s a good time to ask how they’re doing. The breakfast or dinner table, riding together in the car, or during the nightly bedtime routine are a few good examples. If they’re older and not around the house as often, you can always check in over text as well.
At my house, when we sit down to dinner, we’ve started making a little game of it. We each go around the table and take turns answering one question: “What was something new you learned today?”
I started doing this when he was younger, but even at 13, he enjoys carrying on the tradition. He always comes up with something — even when it’s one of those days where he’s been on the screen far too much because school is out and I’m working from home.
When we did this yesterday, I brought up something I learned while writing an article on racial health disparities for my day job. It prompted a lengthy conversation about an important issue, which often tends to happen when we take part in this communication activity.
2. Be aware of your reactions
Parents know that “Kids say the darndest things!” is only a cliche expression because it’s so true. No matter how difficult, uncomfortable, or utterly bizarre the topic of conversation is that your child brings up, take care to manage your response. Keep in mind that showing your shock through a verbal reaction or horrified facial expression can be off-putting for a kid who is being brave and vulnerable by asking that utterly unexpected question.
Sure, if your little one suddenly wants to discuss what you and Daddy do in bed right there in the grocery aisle, you might let them know that it would be better to talk about it when you aren’t in a public setting. But, when you leave the grocery store, make sure to follow up on that curiosity. They’re asking for a reason.
Kids are going to say things that drop our jaws or make us laugh — it’s bound to happen. If you find yourself struggling, just take a deep breath and respond with your best advice. Most importantly, be willing to be a listening ear for them.
3. Let them know they can come to you about anything — and I mean anything
It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to make them feel pressured to tell you every detail of their life every minute of the day. Especially as they get older, they’ll want to have their age-appropriate amount of privacy (another issue you’ll want to talk to them about).
At the same time, you don’t want to always wait for them to come to you. You’re the adult with experience, and they are the young, confused creatures constantly processing weird and overwhelming bits of information about the world around them.
Just as it’s important to say “I love you” out loud, it’s also important to tell them often that, if they want to or need to, they can ask you anything or come to you for help with any issues.
4. Adjust to your child’s unique needs
My 13-year-old speaks openly with me about middle school drama, the state of his pubic hair, the meaning of life, feminism, his anxiety, erections, sexual consent, emotional issues he has with his father, and almost anything else under the sun. He initiates much of it and asks a lot of questions, but I make it a point to initiate conversations as well. He’s definitely a talker, and I’m not sure what he doesn’t tell me about, honestly.
But every kid is different. Not every child loves to express themselves through conversation. Some prefer to be more reserved with their thoughts and feelings. The important thing is that you consistently let your child know that you are there for them, ready to listen and help with anything they need or any questions they have. Just offering your child that care and support will do wonders in making them feel safe coming to you with serious problems when they arise.
5. Build a sense of trust with your child
The best way to do this is by talking with your child often. Don’t let the TV be the only sound in the evening. Start talking to them early on. And if you haven’t yet, it never hurts to try to change the dynamic for the better.
In any case, be prepared to answer their toughest and strangest questions with age-appropriate answers.
Another thing that helps immensely is leading by example. Ask your child how their day went, but also tell them about yours. Give them real details into your life so that they feel comfortable doing the same. You want them to feel safe confiding in you, so it’s important that you make them feel trustworthy by confiding in them, too.
Take a sincere interest in what your kid has to say
My parents spent time with us, worked hard for us, and always made sure we had the material things we needed. They were never big on talking or expressing a whole lot of emotion, and I accept that it’s just how they are.
But, I do wish I’d had a bit more encouragement to express myself in the way I needed to and to ask the hard questions I needed to ask.
While I don’t hold it against them, I do take my experience with me as a learning opportunity for how I’m raising my son now. I hope to instill in him what I had to learn on my own: that talking to your kids about your life, and asking them to talk about theirs, is essential to helping them thrive.