Every parent has a topic they dread discussing with their children, usually one of the Big Three: death, sex or divorce. Other emotionally weighty topics range from adoption to war. Talking about these issues is difficult even for adults, so how can you explain them to children?
Use books. Picture books are an ideal tool when discussing serious topics, making abstract ideas more concrete through simple words and images. Young children often feel confused about the significance of a major life event, such as a loved one’s passing. The older child may feel reticent about certain topics and need a book as an informal starting point.
When Erica Jorgensen’s mother passed away, she left the book Lifetimes out and waited for her 3-year-old son Finn to ask about reading it. It was a “jumping-off point,” she says. “We read it over and over again.” Her son would mention the parts in the book similar to their family’s situation, such as attending a funeral.
Books can also moderate family tension when discussing charged issues such as divorce or adoption. Carolyn Sharp, L.I.C.S.W., is a Seattle-area child and family therapist. She says books decrease pressure on both the parent and child about sensitive topics. “It is no longer about the parent and child so directly, and becomes about the story in the book,” she says. “Parents can read a book with their child and say, ‘Look, Koko Bear’s parents are divorced . . . I wonder how he feels?’ The child can then relate to the characters in the book.” Sharp says parents can use that identification as a way to begin a conversation about how the child feels about his own life.
When to use books. Topical books are helpful when talking about recent crises, introducing new issues or addressing concerns. Shannon Price, M.A., is a Seattle family therapist and Seattle School District teacher. Around age 5 or 6, Price notes, children start asking questions about death, sex, or why Ella’s parents don’t live together anymore. If children don’t ask, they may wonder silently or get information (factual or otherwise) from schoolyard friends. Price says that books are a great way to start informal conversations that will continue throughout childhood and adolescence.
Books help parents, too. Price remarks that many parents feel sad about discussing adult-sized problems such as racism, war or abuse. “You’re taking away a little of your child’s innocence — that’s difficult,” Price says. By introducing thorny topics, parents worry that children may become prematurely disillusioned with the world. “It’s hard for parents to do,” Price says.
Additionally, therapist Carolyn Sharp points out that parents’ strong feelings can hinder open conversation. “The most difficult challenge is the parent overcoming their own anxiety in discussing hard topics,” Sharp says. “If a parent is calm and open, a child is going to respond much more positively.”
Choosing a book. Dozens of titles are available on most tough topics. Work within your family’s value systems and your child’s needs, comprehension levels and personality. For young children, seek titles that explain issues simply, allowing them to digest the information slowly and ask plenty of questions. Older children appreciate scientific or emotional details, wry cartoons and an approach that doesn’t oversimplify. First read through the books on your own to make sure you feel comfortable with the information presented.
To find the right match, use the recommendations here, or consult trusted friends, librarians, doctors or therapists. One excellent resource for parents is How to Talk to Your Kids About Really Important Things: Specific Questions and Answers and Useful Things to Say by Charles E. Schaefer, Ph.D., and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. From a pet’s death to repeating a grade, the authors cover every aspect of the all-too-human experience.
Lora Shinn is a freelance writer and children’s librarian. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.
How to use books
Shannon Price offers these tips for reading books with your child:
1. Go at your child’s pace.
2. Leave plenty of time for questions and provide honest answers. Try to walk the fine line between too little and too much information.
3. Ask questions about how book characters feel, to gauge your child’s understanding of a topic and inner emotional state.
4. You’re modeling how to cope with pain or anxiety. Don’t be afraid to show your feelings, while also demonstrating coping mechanisms. (“Let’s remember all the good things Grandpa did with us before he died.”)
5. Try not to think of any one discussion as The Talk, but instead as a series of talks, an ongoing dialogue.
I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life and Death by Jan Thornhill (ages 8 and older)
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (ages 4-8)
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie (ages 3-6)
It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends by Robie H. Harris. (ages 4-7)
It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris (ages 7 and older)
It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce by Vicki Lansky (ages 3-6)
Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (ages 4-8)
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (ages 5-9)
Horace and Morris, but Mostly Dolores by James Howe (ages 4-7)
Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis (ages 3-8)
A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza (ages 3-8)
The Wall by Eve Bunting (ages 5-9)
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss (ages 5 and older)