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Having Difficult Conversations With Young People

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

As a foster carer, there will be occasions where you may need to address difficult and sensitive topics with children.

These may be topics such as abuse, bereavement, racism, bullying, health concerns or terrorism.

Sometimes these conversations can arise unexpectedly if a young person approaches you with an issue or a certain event triggers a topic to arise. It is useful to prepare for these types of conversations in advance in case they come up.

Having these conversations can be especially important for a child's mental health and wellbeing, as well as ensuring they feel safe and comfortable when they are approaching these topics with a responsible adult whom they trust.

Create a safe space for discussion

If a child approaches you with a topic, find a place where it is quiet and suitable for a one-to-one discussion. Where possible, choose a time and place where there will be no interruptions.

Some children may find it difficult to sit and have a conversation face to face. It may be useful to consider finding other ways to talk about the topic, such as writing things down, drawing pictures, music and poetry or even whilst playing a game.

Reassure them

Let the child know that you are glad they decided to speak to you and acknowledge that sharing their thoughts is a good thing. Inform them that you are happy to listen to what they have to say and answer any questions they have. For younger children, it is also useful to show sensitivity towards the emotions they are feeling and that it's okay to feel sad or angry.

Listen carefully

Try to be patient and avoid interrupting when the young person is talking to allow them to say everything they want to say. Show that you're listening by asking questions if you need more clarity on the situation.

Be open and honest

If you don't know something, tell them. In some cases, you might be able to research a topic together. Encouraging curiosity in this way could help your foster child to ask questions openly in the future. Even if your opinions differ, it is worthwhile to take the time to understand their point of view, especially if something is particularly important to them.

Make the conversation relevant to them

Depending on the child's age, there may be certain language and contexts that are more suitable for them to understand. For example, when talking about mental health issues with a young child, try using language like "they were not very well which made them feel sad and they needed extra help."

It may also be useful to share your feelings about the topic; "I feel angry too when people hurt each other." You could also express how these topics can often be hard for adults too so that they don't feel alone.

Ask open questions

Avoid asking questions that have a "yes" or "no" response, these can restrict the child's ability to share their thoughts. Instead, try questions like "what did you feel when you heard about that?" or "what things would you like to know more about?".

Moving forward

Where appropriate, it can be reassuring for a child to hear something positive at the end of the conversation. This could be something like "the police will catch the person that did that," "the doctors will help them to start feeling better," or "it was really brave of you to speak about this."

In some cases, it may be useful to talk about contributing to a charity or doing volunteer work.

Let them know that they can speak to you about the problem again if the topic comes up again in the future, or if they think of anything more they want to share or ask about.

Each child is different and will have their own ways of communicating when something is bothering them. As a parent, guardian or foster carer, you will likely find your own ways of approaching these conversations that are suitable and comfortable for both you and the child.

NSPCC Learning also offers lots more advice and guidance on handling sensitive conversations should you ever feel unsure.

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