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How to talk to kids about sensitive topics

Sex, drugs, puberty, smoking and sexual orientation are all things that will be up for discussion sooner than your comfort level will likely allow.

No one ever said raising kids was easy. But—apologies to Coldplay—no one ever said it would be so hard, especially when it comes to discussions about tough topics.

While you may be uneasy about bringing up sex, drinking and other R-rated issues, chances are your kids aren’t too thrilled, either. Child psychologist Eliane Herdani says there are many reasons kids don’t like to talk, including a fear of being judged or lectured, or sheer embarrassment.

“Instead of taking the ‘big talk’ approach, look for opportunities in everyday conversation to develop a dialogue with your kids,” she says. If that’s harder than it sounds, here are some conversation starters for timeless tough topics.

Ch-ch-ch-ch changes
David Bowie might’ve been talking about artistic reinvention, but the changes kids have to face during puberty involve watching their bodies go berserk. And those changes are occurring sooner than you might think. Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist at Duke University, says the average age of puberty onset in girls is about ten and a half, and eleven-and-a-half for boys.

Seek out books for your kids—The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality (Fairview Press) is a popular choice—and use them as a catalyst for discussion, Adkins says. Make sure kids are aware of how the other gender develops, too—leaving them to do covert Internet searches of “nekkid girls” likely won’t yield the information they need.

Vice advice
Smoking and drinking, both classic teen-rebel vices, remain top choices. According to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55.8 percent of ninth graders in Chicago had used alcohol, and 39.5 percent had tried cigarettes.

If you drink or smoke, Herdani advises preparing for questions on why it’s okay for you but not kids. Explaining physiological differences between adults and tweens is a good place to start.

Skokie-based child psychologist Elizabeth Hletko suggests that parents “explain that alcohol and drugs impair decision making; you have to know a lot about your body and yourself to be able to handle that, and that takes time.” Herdani additionally calls for keeping open lines of “communication without condemnation.” A good local resource: Robert Crown Centers for Health Education—which lots of Chicago-area kids visit on school field trips—offers videos for parents on its website.

Orientation session
There are no published statistics for how many tweens consider themselves LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), but the Kinsey Report estimates that one in every ten teens may be LGBT and 27 percent are affected by LGBT issues (having gay siblings, parents or other relatives).

Carolyn Wagner, national vice president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, says a good starting point is a statement that offers acceptance rather than judgment with something such as “I just want to let you know that if you’re having feelings that are different from other boys [or girls], it’s okay to tell me because there’s nothing you can say to me that’s going to make me any less proud of you, or love you any less.” If you’re looking for more, Center on Halsted(3656 N Halsted St, 773-472-6469), the city’s largest LGBT community center, offers free youth and family-support groups, as well as advocacy, health, and legal advice.

Clearing the air
The 2009 CDC survey showed 32.1 percent of Chicago ninth graders had tried marijuana, and between 4 and 9 percent had experimented with other illegal and prescription drugs. Even scarier: 26.1 percent had been offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property.

Psychologist Hletko says it’s best to let your kids know why you want to address the issue. “Let your child know what your expectations are of him and why you have those feelings.” As for questions about your own history with drugs, Hletko says it’s okay to respond with a degree of circumspection. “A good answer is, ‘I don’t feel comfortable sharing all the details of my decisions with you, because I have some regrets.’ ”

Kids should be aware of the physiological effects, too: “You can tell kids that pot affects their development and their ability to do the things they want to do,” she says. “ If your kid plays soccer, it’s bad for their lungs and will slow them down…and as anyone who has smoked can tell you, pot generally makes it harder to take on any task at hand.” If that doesn’t work, remind them about that deadbeat druggie neighbor or cousin you know who’s still living in his parents’ basement.

Don’t just do it
The numbers on tween and teen sex are shocking: The 2009 CDC survey found that 44.9 percent of Chicago ninth graders had engaged in sexual intercourse,and 18.2 percent had done so before they turned 13.

“The tough part isn’t the information you want to convey but the questions they are likely to ask,” Hletko says. Some questions might be technical (condoms) and others personal (the first time you had sex). The technical ones can be addressed with good books and websites, Hletko says. Two to suggest to your kid: Scarleteen.com, a community-oriented site with stories by teens about relationships, sex and health that have titles like “First Intercourse 101”; and It’sYourSexLife.com (from MTV), which is loaded with real-life stories and resources, plus a discussion forum.

As for personal questions about your own experience , Hletko again says to proceed with caution. “Your child doesn’t have to know everything,” she says. “You can be honest without being explicit.”

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