'Mom, what is murder?': How to have tough conversations with your child, a therapist’s reflection
Recently someone our family cares for deeply, lost a family member to murder. This shook us all, and we were mindful of not speaking about the act of murder in front of our children, who are nearing two and five.
But somewhere, tiny ears were pricked, and it was on our way to my children’s swimming lesson that my eldest asked the question: “Mom, what is murder?”
As a mom, my instinct was to protect my child from the dreadful knowledge that sometimes, people play God and take lives of others. But in the moments between her question and my response, I realised that my answer, will be another brick in the life-long wall of trust I hope to encircle our relationship with.
So I breathed deeply, adjusted my rear-view mirror, so that I could gauge her response to my words, and said (as steadily as I could) the following: “Murder is when one person kills another. It is not something that should be done, but sometimes people make bad decisions that hurt other people.”
And then, I held my breath. I checked her face in the mirror. She was looking out of the window, and then smiled and said: “Look mom! There is a big dog like the one we saw at the park.”
And I exhaled.
My experience reminded me that our kids are often so much more comfortable with tough talks than we are and that, even as trained psychologist, I sometimes feel unease at speaking about tough topics, yet, almost 50 percent of parenting is having these tough conversations.
And I probably could have worded it better, but honestly, murder was the last thing I was expecting to discuss with my five-year old on our ride.
If you have any tough conversations you need to have with your kids, here are a few guidelines for having conversations that will build trust between you and your child, and hopefully open the channel for communication.
If they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know
Sex, death, divorce. Kids pick things up. If your child asks a question about these topics, do not shut them down.
Reflect on your own discomfort with the topic your child proposes, and if you are uncomfortable, suggest a time where you can answer the question with some preparedness.
Try something like: “Wow buddy, that is a good question. The answer is one that mom needs to think about. Can we chat about this after we have lunch today?”
And then follow through.
Honesty is key
If you want to build trust with your child, start young. Be (age-appropriately honest.) You won’t be going into detailed descriptions of marital problems and infidelity if you are talking about divorce to your toddler. But your pre-teen may need more information to be satisfied.
If you don’t give them the truth, they will find a version of it somewhere.
We cannot control WHAT our children think about, but we can influence HOW they think about something. If Sex-talk is made taboo in your home, your child WILL find out about it elsewhere. And you won’t have control over what they find out.
Be pro-active, engage!
It is great if you can pre-empt conversations, such as those about about sex. Then, before your child asks, you can begin by offer information at their level.
This buys you the chance to be prepared, and to seek out trusted resources and advice.
For toddlers and young kids, there are many storybooks that deal with tough topics in an age-appropriate way. Your local library most likely stocks many of these. With pre-teens and teenagers, you might use more current media, like movies or music to introduce topics.
Tough conversations are not evil, they are doorways that can open up connection and communication with our children. If you find that you are battling with certain conversations, or there are topics that you find inaccessible, obtain some professional advice or help.
But for me, for now, I hope the next tough question I have to answer is: “Why do I have to eat my peas?”
Gerda Kriel is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in maternal and infant mental health.
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