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Your child's toughest questions answered

Death, divorce, sex… what do you say when your child puts you on the spot? Dubai-based clinical psychologist Dr Amy Bailey provides appropriate responses to kids' difficult questions, whatever their age

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Children have a hard time understanding death - especially the finality of it. It is a good idea to discuss life cycles before death hits your family.

"Where do babies come from?"

If faced with this question, find out what your child is actually asking. One child may want to know where you get a baby from, while another may want to know how it gets inside your tummy. Try to find out their current level of understanding.

Kids aged 3-8 years Avoid telling your child that the baby comes from your stomach as this can be frightening and confusing - they may worry that they could grow a baby or that there's not enough room. It could also be embarrassing if they approach a heavy person and ask them when their baby is due. Explain that you have a special place in your body to house the baby until it is born. If they ask how the baby will get out, tell them there is a special place for babies to be born and all women have them. Use age-appropriate picture books on fetal development so they can see what is going on inside a mother's body.

Kids aged 9-12 years At this age, you will have probably spoon- fed your child bits of information over the years. For older children, the focus of the conversations should be around puberty. A good time to start discussing bodily changes is about eight years old. The best approach is a casual one and books can ease the embarrassment of the subject matter when the facts are printed on the page. Buy a general book on how the body works that includes chapters on sexual organs and reproduction. Remember you don't have to do it all in one go and your child should be given time to digest the information and the opportunity to come back to you with any questions.

"Why did grandma die?"

Children have a hard time understanding death - especially the finality of it. It is a good idea to discuss life cycles before death hits your family. Use analogies from nature such as leaves falling or coming across a dead animal, as well as appropriate story books. This allows your child to get used to the idea of death before any loss. If someone is ill then discuss this with them before death occurs so they are prepared. A child must go through the grieving process like adults in order to manage and integrate this experience, so it is crucial to keep your child informed.

Kids aged 3-8 years Be clear about what dead means - for example, that person won't be able to do things they once did such as walk, talk, breathe. Also make clear the finality of death - that they aren't coming back, ensuring your child understands they are not responsible. Ask questions to check this and provide reassurance. It is important not to associate death with sleep as this may cause the child to fear sleep. Similarly, avoid telling a child this age that someone died due to sickness as this will evoke fears that this could happen to them. Use simplistic words such as "dead" and "stopped working".

Kids aged 9-12 years Children from around seven have more of an understanding that death is final, but may not appreciate that this happens to everyone. Be clear with your child about this. By nine years old, your child can probably handle most of the information given to an adult, but under stress they may regress so be sensitive about which information they need to be provided with - enough to have an understanding of the situation but not too much so that they feel burdened or overwhelmed. Providing information in small chunks and repeating this can help a child take on board their loss.

"Are you getting a divorce?"

Children should be informed about divorce as soon as the decision is made - delaying may cause unnecessary anxiety for them. In an ideal world, both parents should talk to their children as a family unit and should agree on what to say beforehand. Pick a time for this news when there is opportunity afterwards to provide plenty of hugs and reassurance. Try to minimise your own emotional reaction as this can cause your child significant anxiety about your wellbeing and lead them to adopt a caretaker role in the future.

Kids aged 3-8 years Ensure your child understands they are not responsible and that although one parent may not be living at home, you both still love them equally. In order to ease the anxiety, be clear about future plans - who the child will live with, where the other parent will live, and when the child will see them (use a pictorial calendar to help children more easily understand). Try to minimise any other changes at this time in order to foster some sense of stability. Give your child an age-appropriate understanding of the reasons for your divorce: important phrases to use include: ‘Mummy and daddy make each other sad when we are together'; ‘It's not your fault'; ‘It's okay to feel sad'; ‘You will always be safe'; ‘Mummy and daddy will live in different places but we both love you and will always be there for you'; ‘You can love and spend time with both of us'.

Kids aged 9-12 years Older children can understand the implications of divorce, but they will worry about the future, feel sadness and anger, and may even blame themselves. They will be aware that the divorce is causing their pain but be unable to understand and control this. Be clear with them about the reasons for divorce and what this means for their future. Try using words such as: ‘Mummy and daddy have done a lot of thinking...' to communicate that this has not been an easy decision. Encourage them to talk about their difficult feelings and help them create words for this. Provide lots of reassurance about the future - that everything will be okay, but different.

"Friends, even adults use bad words, why can't I?"

It can be a shock when you hear your child swear and you'll want to know where your child learnt this and whether they understand what they are saying. How you react to your child's swearing will influence their future swearing behaviour.

Kids aged 3-8 years Young children often swear to explore language and it may be something they've overheard you or someone else say. Most of the time they are unlikely to understand the meaning of what they have said. Under such circumstances it is best to show minimal reaction. However, if this word is repeated, then calmly tell your child that this is not a good word and that such words can hurt other people's feelings. As the child gets more mature, they will benefit from a simple explanation of why the word is unacceptable.

Kids aged 9-12 years When older children swear, it is usually because they want to vent some negative emotion. They may also swear to fit in socially, impress their friends or create shock value. It is important that as your child gets older, there are clear family rules about what words are acceptable and what are not. Explain to your child that different places have different rules. Try to explore with your child the motivation around using swear words. If it is to vent negative feelings then help your child to find different words to express anger or frustration and ensure that you do this yourself. If it is to fit in with peers, discuss other ways they can achieve this and how other people may perceive their behaviour - what message is this sending about themselves?

"I saw my friend cheat on a test. Do I tell the teacher?"

Such questions are crucial in helping children develop a sense of morality and helping them understand right from wrong. We all want our children to grow up to be kind, honest and considerate individuals, and to achieve this, it's important to teach morality from a young age. Pre-adolescents remain in what developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg describes as the pre-conventional stage of moral development.

Kids aged 3-8 years The first stage of moral development is concerned with obedience and punishment. Younger children see rules as fixed and absolute and it is important to follow the rules in order to avoid punishment. In making decisions about their behaviour they focus purely on the direct consequences of the action on themselves. They are therefore unlikely to ask questions about moral dilemmas as this is not yet part of their thinking. As such, you need to lead by example. Discuss openly good behaviour and how to make the right choices. Explain the benefits of kindness and how this makes others feel. Story books are again a good source of information to teach your child about these principles. Read such morality tales together and follow this up with a discussion in order to reinforce the message being given. If you see your child doing something immoral then calmly address this with your child and explain in simple terms why this is wrong.

Kids aged 9-12 years As children become older they enter a new stage of pre-conventional moral development that takes a more ‘what's in it for me?' approach. The right behaviour is perceived as one which is in the child's best interest. The child may show some interest in the needs of others but largely this is only to further their own interests. As they mature, they will move into a more sophisticated stage of moral development that takes into account what is expected of them by others. In discussing moral issues, it is important to follow the same methods as for younger children but, in addition, talk to them more openly about different choices and what the implications of these options might be both to themselves and to others.

Kids' questions need to know

  • It's important that when answering your child's questions, you do so in a way that allows your child to trust that you will provide them with reasonable and valid responses. Follow these six guidelines:
  • Always try to answer your child's questions when asked. If the timing is inconvenient then tell them you promise to talk later and bring it up again as soon as possible.
  • Take their questions seriously - even if it seems unimportant to you - and try to answer in a matter-of-fact way, while avoiding sentimentality.
  • Never lie to a child but do think about how much the child needs to know about the particular subject matter dependent on their age and maturity.
  • Don't worry if you need longer to think about an answer - tell your child you need time to think of a good answer for them and find an appropriate book, if necessary.
  • Be prepared to repeat your responses, as often children need to test out that the facts remain the same, so make sure that all the adults or older kids in the house are giving your child consistent messages.
  • The key to answering any question is to find out what exactly the child wants to know and to answer it in an age-appropriate manner. Ask some questions first to find out what their current level of understanding is and what they specifically want to know.

Dr Amy Bailey is a clinical psychologist at KidsFIRST Medical Center