Helping Children Talk about Difficult Topics


One of the most interesting aspects of working as a child, versus an adult, psychologist is the fact that children don't normally decide to come to therapy.

And furthermore, they often don't want to talk about the topics that parents or others think they should be talking about.  

As a professional working with children yourself, you probably know very well the experience of talking to a child who doesnt really want to talk about something.

Working with kids to try to help them communicate about difficult topics is an important skill for us.  Here are three things we should remind ourselves of when doing this - and a few things to try.

3 things to know about kids "not talking" 

1. It's quite normal for some children to not be interested in discussing difficult topics.  

Ask child a question about a traumatic event, a worry, an argument they had with a friend or a difficult behaviour - and frequently they will change the topic, move away, get distracted or ignore us.  They often just don't want to talk about it.

It's useful for us as professionals to think about why this is.

Sometimes it is because the child is not as concerned about the situation as we as adults are.  
Sometimes this is because the child doesn't know how to talk about it - or is finding it difficult to find the words to express themselves.  
Sometimes this is because the child feels anxious or uncomfortable talking about the situation (ie, perhaps they don't want to upset someone, or perhaps they are worried about getting in trouble).   

If the child is capable, at times I might address this some of this directly.  I might say things like:

"How much (on a scale from 1-10) are you worried about this/do you think this is a problem, when 10 is a huge problem/worry and 1 is not a problem/worry at all?"
"If you talk about this with me, will something bad happen do you think?"
"I know lots of kids feel a bit anxious when they talk about this.  Do you feel a bit uncomfortable talking about this?"
"Some kids feel like talking about X is kind of a boring thing to do.  What do you think?"

Regardless, it's very normal for kids to want to avoid sitting and talking - and to prefer to play, watch videos or game than talk about a difficult situation.  

2. Children don't always really need to talk about it difficult situations.  

It's also important to know that sometimes "it's okay" for children not to talk about difficult situations.  Adults often worry that children are not "processing" something because they are not talking about it.  However unlike adults, kids don't always need to use words to cope with difficult situations.  Sometimes they can effectively work through emotions and tell adults important stuff via playing.  It's not the case that children must talk to "sort things through".   Sometimes we can just let it go.

At these times, we might work with parents/carers instead.  Or we might reassure the child that if they do want to talk about the situation, we will listen.

"You might find that you have some questions about this topic one day.  Or you might find there are things you would like to say about this topic, maybe to tell me some feelings you have or maybe to tell me something you wish was different.  If you want to ever ask me a question, or tell me about your feelings, you can just draw a picture of X, put a note in my drawer, send me an email (insert whatever sign the child can use to indicate they want to talk).

3. However at other times - children do need to talk with us.  

There are some times when children do need to spend some - at least short periods of - time talking to adults about difficult situations.  

For example, sometimes we need to talk to kids in order to teach them something.
Sometimes we need to talk to kids to find out some details about something.
Sometimes we need to talk with children when they are clearly struggling to manage a situation.  

In these cases, talking helps them learn, helps us help them - and gives us information we need.  In other words - and I say this to kids - "part of the job of learning to be a big kid/learning to be an adult, is doing some talking about tricky topics"

In this case, even though we might need to make some short communication a "no choice" activity for children in some situations, we want to do it in a way which is as easy and painless as possible.

Here are 5 tricks to try to help children talk about difficult topics.

1. Make the conversation and statements short and questions easy to answer

Kids' attention spans are much shorter than ours.   They get bored quickly!  To make it less painful, we can tell children we will be as fast as we can, for example:

"I know you don't really want to talk about this, but I need to have a quick chat with you about it.  Let's put the timer on and just do 6 minutes and then you can go play."

In addition, in "talking with children" we should emphasise the asking of questions rather than the talking.  We need to use short sentences and say less than we think we need to.  I know I've said this in other articles, but research on "master therapists" for example indicate that they use at least a 3:1 (if not a 4 or 5:1) ration of questions to statements.  

We also need to make questions easy to answer.  "Either/or" questions are a great start, or questions on a scale (see below).

2. Less eye contact

It's important not to force children to be looking at us in a conversation about a difficult topic. I will often give children something else to look at to make the conversation more fun and relaxed for them.

For example, I've had some great conversations with children who are using fiddle toys while talking to me, while drawing or building blocks.  

And the best conversations happen while I'm also using a fiddle toy, stapling documents or drawing too.  Providing children know we care and are listening, doing something while they are talking sometimes helps them feel more relaxed.

3. Use visuals

A third way to help children talk is to use visual objects, diagrams, graphs or props to help them explain themselves.  This helps them to be able to communicate more clearly, helps them understand what we are asking and makes it more fun.

For example, I often use a scale from one to ten (how worried are you about this right now) or with different faces on it (point to which emotion face was most like yours today), with people on it (let's draw your friends' faces - now which person did you have the most fun with this week/who did you feel most nervous with).  

I will also often use puppets, figurines and dolls (let's pretend you are this one, and she was this one - you say what she said and I will say what you said) 

I'll also frequently use drawings - not just as a way to give kids the option of less eye contact, but also as a way they can explain themselves to me (hey, here are three boxes - draw what happened first in this box, and then what happened next in this box)

4. Make communication game based

Another way to make communication easier is to turn it into a simple game.  

This doesn't have to be elaborate or time consuming.

For example, I will often spend two seconds roughly drawing a ladder on scrap paper, opening an online dice web page - and getting children to roll the dice, answer a question, and then roll the dice and answer another question - until they get to the end of the ladder.  

I might find a container and rip up paper with questions on it to put in the container and take turns in taking them out.  

I might use a ball to throw back and forth between us in taking turns to answer questions.  

I might get the child to draw a tick every time they give me a detail about a situation - and put them all in a circle to see how many details we can get until the circle is full.

Often I will ask the child to help me come up with rules about these "games" to do with the topic we are talking about.  It's amazing how creative kids can be, and how much this helps the conversation flow.

Again, these conversations can still be only 5 minutes long - it doesn't take long to make a game out of a conversation.  And powerful conversations can happen quickly.

5. Intersperse conversations with more "fun" activities

In the clinic I will almost always use a timer to use to help children stay motivated on "working" with me.  We will set 10 minutes of "working" and then 3 minutes of youtube/ gaming/reading/playing indoor soccer (depending of course on the age of the child and their interests).    

The most important step?

Using these strategies can help children be a little less reluctant to talk and help them to practice important communication skills.  Of course, the most important way to help children communicate with us is to make sure we act in kind, trust-worthy and caring ways - and be patient - with them and with ourselves.