How to Have Difficult Conversations with Kids

J Wallace Skelton wrote this great piece, How I Learned to Talk To My Kids About Graphic Anti-Abortion Signs. Here are some highlights, and how, for me, this ties in with parallel conversations around transition.

Social worker Gaela Mintz advises that when children encounter something new and possibly upsetting they often turn to a parent or attachment figure and mirror their emotion. “If you can remain calm it will help calm them and regulate their reactions and emotions.” Your calmness gives them room to process what they are feeling, rather than needing to figure out how to respond to your reaction.

I have learnt this over and over again when disclosing. The times I did it seeming embarrassed and/or like I conceded it was a burden/inconvenient that I had “this thing” to discuss, were the times I got some of the worse reactions. Conversely, most of my positive reactions were from times when I disclosed with confidence. Bill Shannon in his work on navigating conversations around dis/ability similarly recommends what he calls “neutral palette,” which is a similar idea.

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[Picture by Amir Abbas Abdolali on Unplash. Description: 2 brown ducks standing on 1 leg, looking in opposite directions.]

It’s OK to answer their questions in a simplified way, because too much detail or information may be harmful. Because this is probably not the only time you will get to talk about this topic, you can add details and layers later. Several parents shared that even when their children asked about the reasons someone might seek an abortion, they left out some of the more painful examples. Instead, they gave some reasons they believed their children could handle, and ended with “or other personal reasons.”

Yes, providing simple answers is about acknowledging the validity of their curiosity, while keeping the conversation age appropriate. The topic will be revisited over time, more complex questions will likely come up then. It’s about answering the questions they have, without anticipating what else they might be wondering but not asking. It seems so obvious when put so plainly but it’s key to remember that kids are not adults. Their train of thought will not follow that of older people with more lived experience. I’ve yet to have a pre-teen ask me about my genital surgical status for example. That’s in the top 2 questions I get from adults. Providing more information than they requested can overwhelm, lead to confusion, and topics that hadn’t crossed their mind, and would be better handled as they age.

it’s helpful to model that not all questions get answers. For example, some parents may feel comfortable sharing if they have had an abortion, or if anyone they know has had one. Others might want to answer “for many people, that’s a private medical decision.”

This ties in the ongoing conversation around consent that is so crucial. Asking is fine, but we don’t always get to know everything we want, and that’s okay as well.

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[Picture by Timon Studler on Unplash. Description: 2 lion cubs on the edge of a bush.]

If you are finding that the conversation is too emotional for you, you might suggest your child ask someone else; a trusted family member or a leader in your community who can answer questions for your child that you may not feel equipped to.

I often give this recommendation to adults transitioning in the workplace. The reasons are different, but all the same, sometimes we are not the best person to answer questions that hit very close to home. It’s important to recognise that, honour that this is part of being human, flaws and all, and the mature, responsible thing to do might be to take a step back personally, and bring in someone else for part of the conversation.

Be Prepared For Your Child To Have Their Own Opinion — And That It Might Not Be The Same As Yours.

This is where my anxiety gets the best of me. As much as I want to believe that my being family, them loving me beyond words would guarantee being on the same page, but it doesn’t. They are independently thinking, they live in the same cisnormative, transphobic world I do. School, the media, other relatives, etc are conveying different messages. I have great faith that when they’re younger they’ll mostly “side with me,” but it’ll probably be more out of love than firm understanding. That may well change as they grow up.

To help manage my anxiety, I remind myself it doesn’t mean that whatever they end up believing sooner or later will be their final stance either. All of us change our minds all the time, and especially as we grow up. I held some very mentalist and transphobic beliefs when I was younger. This was the result of the multitude of messages and influences all around. It takes time to sift through so much information, recognise dominant narratives for what they are, and sort out where one relates to these things.

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[Picture by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unplash. Description: 2 toddlers playing on a tablet.]

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