Communicating effectively (talking and listening) on a daily basis is challenging for most parents but when the topic is a sensitive one such as puberty, dating, sexual behavior or alcohol, it can become increasingly more difficult for parents to explain and children to understand.

Effective communication provides excellent opportunities for parents to express their values and really hear what children are thinking.

Parents often question when they should begin discussing “sensitive” topics. Think of it this way: If a child watches TV, goes to movies, reads magazines, or socializes with peers, then he or she has probably heard and /or seen information about drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, and STDs. The question then is not when, but what information should be shared at what age. In addition to sharing correct, age-appropriate information, parents should share family values and moral principles as well. Waiting for the “right time” (usually meaning when a parent is more comfortable) is not an option. Children’s questions will be answered, either correctly or incorrectly, and possibly from sources that do not share the same value system. It’s important for parents to talk to their kids before everyone else does.

So, How Do We Start?

Start early.
Keep information age appropriate and sensitive. Watch for that ‘lost look’. That’s the clue to stop talking and listen.

Initiate conversations.
Don’t wait for children to start asking questions. Use billboards, commercials, or other media to begin discussing what was just seen or heard. Just asking one or two questions can lead to valuable discussions about everyday circumstances and events.

Talk about sex and relationships, too.
Many parents feel awkward and uneasy, and that’s okay. Try to overcome nervousness and bring up the topic anyway. Be sure to include family values. It’s important for children to know the expectations of their parents.

Create an open environment.
Keep the atmosphere “consequence free” and make sure questions are answered, even if it means finding out more information and getting back with your child.

Communicate your values.
Research shows that children want and need moral guidance from their parents; so don’t hesitate to make your beliefs clear. Share your family’s values with your child.

Listen to your child.
Give children your undivided attention. Listening carefully not only builds self-esteem but lets young people know that what they say and believe is important. Listening also helps parents to better understand what’s really being asked, as well as what’s already understood. Ask children to explain what they think something is so that your can adjust your explanations to fit.

Be honest.
Whatever age, children deserve honest answers and explanations. If adults do not give straightforward answers, children often make up their own fantasy explanations, which can be more frightening than any real, honest responses.

Be patient.
Let children finish their own sentences. This allows a child to think at their own pace, and lets them know they are worthy of your time.

Use everyday opportunities to talk.
Watch for “talk opportunities” – these are teachable moments that arise in everyday life where discussions can occur. Newspaper articles, magazine articles, TV shows, or songs on the radio often provide wonderful opportunities for discussion.

Talk about it again, and again.
Repetition is normal. Be prepared and tolerant of answering the same question many times. Patience and persistence serves both parents and children well. Remind children that no question is stupid or silly. Every question is worth asking and that if you don’t know the answer you will find out and get back with them. This is one way of letting children know that you are there to help.

Effective communication (talking and listening) provides excellent opportunities for parents to express their values and really hear what children are thinking. Children need to view their parents as reliable sources for answering questions, clearing up misunderstandings, discussing values, and promoting healthy attitudes; and research indicates that kids want to hear from you. So keep talking! Stay involved in your young person’s life. They will thank you for being there.