How to Have Tough Safety and Security Conversations with Kids

As a parent, it feels like there are so many things we want to protect our children from. It could be worrying about them not hurting themselves on the playground, talking to strangers, walking to and from school or online conversations with others.

By having open communication about these tough topics, your child learns that they can always talk to you and that you’ll be there to listen if something is worrying them. This sets up a great foundation for communication in the teenage years.

You may have noticed new behaviour they are exhibiting, or you may feel uncomfortable to ask about something you're worried about, like sex or drugs or abuse. However, these protective conversations are important.

The importance of having protective conversations with your child

Protective conversations are discussions with your child from a young age about safety, their bodies, and how they can protect themselves. These types of conversations will help them identify when they are unsafe and learn what they can do about it.

Here are some ways we can approach these important conversations in a supportive manner, in a way they can understand, without sounding overbearing or scaring them.

Consider when and how to talk to your child

Timing can be everything. For example, it may not be ideal to start one of these discussions in the evening when they're tired and find it hard to concentrate.

For privacy, it might be best to schedule it when others aren't around to interrupt or listen in.

A relaxed and neutral place may help the conversation to feel this way, like on a walk or in the car.

You may also consider planning what you will say and how. 

How to start a hard conversation

It can help to prompt them with a TV show or storybook to introduce the topic. For example, there could be a TV show or film that addresses the topic, like a character experiencing bullying. You could ask your child what they'd do in the same situation.

There are now also lots of storybooks written to help teach children about such subjects as death, abuse, bullying, and even natural disasters like bushfires. After reading the story together, you could ask questions to check their understanding and what they would do if they were in the same situation as the character.

You could also ask them their thoughts about the topic. You could say that a friend of yours needs advice about that issue and to ask if they have any ideas. It's a great way to show that you value their opinions while also finding out how much they know about a subject.

Talking about feelings

Distinguish between “yes” feelings, as when something happens that you like, to “no” feelings as the feeling you have after something happens that you don’t like.

Ensure your child knows all feelings are okay, helpful, and healthy. Even the “no” feelings are useful because they can help keep us safe.

Reading a book together (we particularly love The Feelings Series by Trace Moroney) is a good way of identifying these in the characters. You could also identify in the story where safety rules have been broken, at which point you can stop the story for a moment to have a protective conversation with your child about it and discuss its effects.

Talking about feelings

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Talking about secrets

There are “happy” and “unhappy” secrets to teach.

You can explain that a happy secret often involves a surprise such as a family member’s upcoming birthday party, which is known to everyone and shared.

An unhappy secret is less open and can occur when your child is asked by someone to not tell anyone about it. If the unhappy secret seems like a “no” feeling, explain to your child that they need to tell a grown-up they trust straight away. Reassure them that this is a good thing to do.

Keeping the conversation going

It might take time for your child to fully understand, or it might not go the way you wanted, which is ok. Your child might not be ready to talk straight away but could restart the conversation with you later.

Having a few bite-sized conversations over time might work better than one long conversation. It gives your child the time to process what has been discussed.

Listen without judgement

It’s important your child knows you are listening to them so they feel valued. You could say something like, "Thank you for telling me about this. You know you can always tell me anything, I am here for you. You're not going to get into trouble, we can do this together. Tell me as much as you can, I will be listening."

Tell them it’s OK for them to feel however they are feeling. Ask open questions rather than those that will provide "yes" and "no" answers, so that your child can provide a more meaningful response. Example questions include, "Have you seen anyone being bullied online? How did you think that made them feel? How did you feel? Has anything like this ever happened to you?"

Let them take as long as they need to answer without interrupting. They may be nervous or still processing their thoughts.

Allow your child ask you questions too. Be honest with them about how you feel about certain subjects and about things that have happened to you in the past.

Let them know that they can tell you anything, or they can also tell other people they trust, when anything is worrying them.

When your child comes to you with a concern

It may be that they want to talk about a friend who's depressed or they witnessed someone being bullied. Or it could be about something they've done themselves, like trying alcohol for the first time.

Because it’s probably taken a lot of courage to mention it to you, help them feel as comfortable as possible about continuing the conversation.

Let them say everything they want to before you give any opinions or advice.

It's OK to ask your child what they'd like you to do about the situation, but it may be something where you can't do anything at all; for example, if they're grieving over a death. What you can always do is reassure and support – starting with a big hug.

Get help if you need it

If you’re finding the subject is just too difficult or distressing for you to talk about with a child, you could seek advice from a counsellor, Lifeline, Parentline, your GP or your child’s teacher.


Disclaimer
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Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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