How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Children

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Happy Mother's Day!

Happy 2021 with hopes that this letter will help bring more happiness into your home during this season of political angst, COVID fear, and social media overload that seems to be beating on the inside and outside of our homes like an unrelenting storm.

There is no doubt that our children are being subjected to peer talk, social media talk, and political talk that is building confusion, anxiety, and depression like no previous generation I have observed in my 50 years of youth counseling.

On the happy side of that coin (where I love to think and live😊) these resilient children in this youth generation inspire me! I get to observe, train, befriend more true solid Christian leaders in our K-2 Kamp than I have EVER seen before. These are the kids who pursue the “God first, others second, I’M THIRD” philosophy at home, at school, and in social relationships. Developing more of THAT is the purpose of this letter!

Fortunately, God has inaugurated the home as a place of refuge, rest, and guidance for those who anchor their home on the foundation of scripture and their relationship with Jesus Christ, the wisest “home-builder” that ever lived..

Fortunately, God has inaugurated the home as a place of refuge, rest, and guidance for those who anchor their home on the foundation of scripture and their relationship with Jesus Christ, the wisest “home-builder” that ever lived.

So, what is a parent to do with tedious and difficult conversations that arise from our children’s questions and concerns from the angst and confusion of growing up that often causes strained parent-child communication? Like many such issues that arose in my family (with four teenagers living under our roof at the same time) does your home relate to the challenge? If so, perhaps I can be helpful.

First and foremost, creating “safety” in your conversations with your children, in crisis or in differing opinions or even in argumentative discussions is key to unserved parent-child communication.

“Emotional safety” is tender between a parent and a child and easily CRUSHED with criticalness, unfiltered answers, parental lectures, parents with quick fixes to a child’s problems, preoccupation with Facebook, television, business, overcommitting, etc. A “closed spirit” in a child, on the other hand results in silence or “yes” and “no” answers, or answers from children’s mouths but not from their hearts.

Many years ago, J. David Stone taught me that though “active listening” is hard work, it is a skill that wise parents can learn and practice with amazing results. Active listening is the framework for creating trust, safety, and openness in communication between parents and children of any age. This is the tool professional counselors use to unlock the cases of hurt and broken relationships. The ABC’s of active listening are not rocket science! Step one is developing the discipline of open ears and firmly bitten tongues. 😊 Step two (and this is really fun and amazingly productive) is developing the skill of communicating with your child with open ended questions as a replacement for advice and quick fixes. This is almost completely how I counsel and befriend kids at Kamp who come to me with issues that need to be resolved. Simple questions like “Tell me about your day.” and “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” and “What did God teach you from His Word today?” and “How did you use your ‘I’m Third’ motto today?” and “Describe any moral of scriptural conflict you felt with friends today.” and “What’s wrong?” and “You look a little sad. Tell me how I can help.” etc. Then, most importantly as a parent… DON’T START GIVING ADVICE!!! Just listen and pose a follow up question. “How did you feel when that happened?” “How did you feel when your friends hurt you?” “How did that make you feel today?”

If your child trusts you with a feeling, treasure it like gold! Don’t give a sermon or try to talk them out of a feeling like advice givers do or like parents who are always trying to “fix” everything do. If you are one of those, you’ll get precious few opportunities to participate in meaningful conversations again. Proverbs 18:13 wisely warns, “One who gives an answer before he hears, it is foolishness and shame to him.” Oh, how I want to plaster this on the walls of argumentative homes!

Graciously help your child unpack the feeling. If a child says, “I’m hurting,” “I’m sad,” “you made me mad,” “my friends made me feel lonely,” etc., just tenderly ask a few simple questions. “Tell me about that a little bit.” “What was that like for you?” “Tell me about your anger.” “Describe what that frustration was like for you.” Gently let your child talk it out. The more kids talk the more they come to a conclusion they are likely to follow. Unsolicited advice is considered criticism to children!

Next, a golden question in problem solving is, “What do you want?” Follow up by asking, “When you said ______ how did saying that make you feel?” Then ask, “Describe that feeling to me.” Listen. Listen. Listen.

After listening and sensitively asking such questions for a while, when your child gets to a positive solution then ask, “What do you need to do to get what you want?” “When do you want to start?” “How can I help you get there?”

Yes, there are times for parents to be tough. Yes, boundaries need to be clear in a home. Yes, things come up in conversations when a parent needs to say, “Absolutely not as long as you are under this roof.” But, the habit of shutting kids down when children are trying to formulate decision making skills will do just that: shut kids down.

If your child is headed down an unsafe or selfish road you can be a little sly in helping them think differently, but while unsolicited advice is considered criticism, use questions to open doors to better thinking. “How do you think that idea will be good to you (or help you) in five years?” “Will that idea be the best for you the day when your bride walks down the aisle?” “When your children look deeply into your eyes and begin to formulate their ideas of the person they want to be… is your current pattern of thinking going to make you that person?” “Studies show that nicotine, pot, and other illicit drugs are addictive. Describe how addiction fits into your future plans for success.” “Unfiltered iPhone usage leads to anxiety, porn usage, and exposure to child theft, bullying and addiction. Tell me how you feel about that reality in your life.” Help your children learn to think smart!

Lastly and also most importantly, when you as a parent have effective conversations with your children during crisis, conflict, or moral development, there is one source that is always right, good, and mutually beneficial to you and your child. Read scripture together, memorize scripture together, and refer to scripture for ideas and moral development.

A great example you can use is in Philippians 2:5a when Paul says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” You can ask your child, “What is God saying to you through His love letter about________? (what you are thinking, which decision is best for you, etc.) How does your position fit that biblical exhortation?” Or read Paul in I Corinthians 15:33, ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Ask your child, “Do you honestly feel that the relationship you are getting into won’t become a contradiction for you?” Or quote Proverbs 23:31-32, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly; in the end it bites like a snake and stings like a viper.” Then ask, “Is that party going to help or harm you in the long run?” “What does the law say about alcohol use?”

When my son Cooper was 6 years old, he asked his mom for another Bible verse to memorize. In Debbie-Jo’s typical candor she responded, “Children honor and obey your parents…” Ephesians 6:1 Cooper pulled his thumb out of his mouth and said, “That’s not in there. You just made that up.” (Oh, that kid stole my heart!)

Joyfully for the kids,

Joe White

KEYWORDS: Behavior, Spiritual Identity, Purity, Relationships, Family,