We Need to Talk: What to Expect When You Need to Have Difficult Conversations

“We need to talk.” Do those four words strike fear in your heart? They are usually the signal that a difficult conversation is on its way. Most of us are just not good at discussing potentially painful topics. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid it. If you’re fostering children, especially older youth, you’ll probably need to talk to them about many difficult topics. Often, kids don’t know the details of their own stories or may have questions that they are afraid to ask. How can we make this less stressful for all involved? What do you want to talk about? What comes to mind when you think of uncomfortable conversations with children in your care? Here are a few examples of issues that you may need to discuss:

  • Is this my fault?
  • If I’m really good, can I go home?
  • Why is my mom or dad going to jail?
  • Are my siblings safe? Why can’t I be with them?
  • Why can’t I stay with my grandma?
  • Why does my mom want drugs or alcohol instead of me?
  • I told my mom what a bad parent you are. I don’t want to be here!

The book Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child (available in our Lending Library) includes examples of conversations with age-appropriate details for a child who does not live with their birth parents. An important point made in this book is that children in your care should know they are there because of “grown-up” problems and that “grown-up” problems are more complicated than they seem. You can’t shield children from difficult conversations when they have already been exposed to real-life situations. Under these circumstances, children need to discuss life events to make sense out of what is happening.

Where should the conversation take place?
There will come a time when you know a difficult conversation needs to happen. Perhaps you overheard something the youth in your care shared with someone else, or a social worker has shared something that will be easier for the child to hear if it is
coming from you. But, first, you need to find the “window of opportunity” for having the conversation. It might not be the greatest time when they’re watching their favorite TV show or getting ready to head out the door with friends. So how do you create the right environment for what could be an emotional moment? Think about where you want the conversation to occur and what you could be doing while you talk. Sitting across from each other at the dining room table with no distractions might not be the best environment. Could you take a walk together to a park or lakefront and sit side by side on a bench? Does the child in your care enjoy making art or crafting? It can be easier to talk about tough things when hands are busy, and eye contact isn’t necessary. This can offer a distraction and ease anxiety. And, of course, there is always the car ride. You’ll find it easier to talk with teens when neither of you can walk away, and your eyes are on the road. A vehicle has the bonus of being an intimate setting where no one else can hear what you’re talking about.

How do I navigate this conversation?
Now we know what we want to talk about and where to discuss it. What’s next? Social worker, educator, and parent Maris Blechner uses four guiding principles regarding difficult conversations:

  1. Never lie.
  2. Don’t tell children more than you think they can handle. But if they ask for more, tell them.
  3. Never say anything that you will have to change later unless you get new information.
  4. Don’t let self-protection dictate what you say.

You’re ready. Take a deep breath and follow these tips to navigate the conversation:

  • Let the child in your care know that you have confidence in their ability to hear the facts of their story. They are entitled to know their truth.
  • Don’t minimize or exaggerate. Convey empathy and strength, not pity or fear.
  • Be ready to engage when the child starts asking questions. When a child asks questions, it’s a sign that their brain is ready for the information. Don’t disclose more than you think they can handle. But if they ask for more details, share them.
  • Avoid strong reactions if a child says something you don’t like or that you disagree with. Instead, support them as they express their thoughts and feelings. As the conversation unfolds, you may find it’s necessary to provide additional information to correct misunderstandings.
  • Keep answering their questions until they stop asking. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Explain that you will do your best to find out an answer if possible.
  • Follow physical and emotional cues to find an appropriate time to end the conversation. If a child refuses to accept what you are telling them or starts to disassociate, that is the time to stop.

Time to process
You’ve had the conversation–congratulations! But you’re not finished yet. Both you and the child in your care need time to process and revisit the conversation later if necessary. Children and youth learn best through repetition. You may need to introduce complex topics or details about their life stories several times before a child fully understands. Integrating these conversations during moments of connection with the child can help build attachment and trust.

What Happens Next?
With the conversation over and keeping in mind that everyone may still be processing, what comes next? You may have spent so much time planning for the difficult conversation that you haven’t given much thought to the aftermath. After a difficult conversation, you may witness angry outbursts, crying, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, or anxiety symptoms. Let the child in your care know that it’s okay to experience these feelings. Give them the opportunity, space, and support to process their emotions.

How can you help them do this?

  • Acknowledge the conversation. You could say, “I really appreciated the way you handled that talk yesterday,” or “I just wanted to see how you’re feeling after our conversation.”
  • Thank them for engaging in the discussion.
  • Reiterate your invitation to revisit the conversation whenever they are ready or have new questions.
  • If you feel that you have something new to share, don’t wait to broach the topic. You might find that the conversation flows more easily this time.

You may feel guilty or upset for causing anxiety or anger in the child in your care. Our tip sheet, Making Space for Healing, shares information about “good grief.” Grief is necessary to let the healing process begin. Let the children in your care know that they have permission to feel, respect their current emotions, and model how to handle a loss. In addition, you may need to model sharing your feelings for them to practice caring and listening.

Keep in mind that the elimination of grief is not the goal. Instead, look at the child in your care through a lens of compassion, even when challenging behaviors may be affecting you emotionally. And don’t forget to take care of yourself. As a caregiver of someone who may have experienced staggering losses, you need support as well. Relationships with other foster/adoptive/relative caregiver parents may bring comfort to you. You can find a list of support groups here: Family Support Associations. Being a foster/adoptive/relative care parent is challenging, but it is also lifechanging. As you continue to learn and grow, so will the child in your care.