How to Answer Difficult Questions From Children

When your child begins to explore the world, he will often have questions about what he sees. See more parenting pictures.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Over the years, you give your child a great deal of information in answer to his questions both trivial and serious. Some of your answers are very brief, just "Yes" or "No"; others are longer. A great many begin with the word "because." Some consist of facts, plain and simple, and others express emotions, values, or philosophy. Your answers all have something in common whether they concern why the sky is blue, where babies come from, or how a beloved grandparent can pass from life to death. With the first "Why?" question you answer, you establish your own unique style of giving information, and your child knows from then on what to expect from you when he asks a question. However, some of your child's questions will be easier to answer than others. As a parent you might wonder how much your child will be able to understand about complex or upsetting topics. In this article, we will give you some advice for answering children's most difficult questions, including:

  • Answering a Child's Questions About Death As we begin our examination of difficult questions children ask, we will offer some general tips for answering tough questions. Whether of grave importance or absurd silliness, your child's questions should be taken seriously. Then we will move on to one of the hardest subjects to talk about with a young child -- death. We will discuss various ways you can bring up the subject with your child, and ways to react once he poses the question to you. We'll also tell you when not to talk to your child about death and the euphemisms you should avoid.
  • Answering a Child's Questions About Sex Long before you need to give your child "the talk" about the bird and bees, they will probably ask you many questions about where babies come from. If a little brother or sister is on the way or a close family friend has recently become pregnant, your child will mostly likely start peppering you with questions about reproduction. In this section, we will tell you how much you need to tell your child about this touchy subject without confusing them. We will also handle other questions dealing with sexuality and gender. Learn More How to Choose Toys for a Child How Children Mature TLC.com: TLC Family
  • Answering a Child's Questions About Divorce
  • A divorce, or even a sustained period of distress in the home, can take an enormous psychological toll on your children. While child will not understand all of the dynamics occurring between you and your partner, they will be able to sense that something has changed or is not quite right in the home. In this section, we will learn how to tell your child about a divorce or separation, and how to deal with the questions that will inevitably follow. For instance, it is common for children to blame themselves fro problems in their parent's marriage.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Answering a Child's Questions About Death

Exploring nature together can be a good way to introduce your child to the concept of death.
Exploring nature together can be a good way to introduce your child to the concept of death.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

As children begin to learn about the world around them, their limited experience does not equip them to understand a lot of what they see. Consequently, for the moment children learn to talk, they usually start asking questions.

General Tips

To foster your child's trust in you and his confidence that the answers you give are reasonable and valid, consider following these guidelines:

  • Be willing to answer questions when your child asks them. If the timing is very inconvenient, promise you'll talk later, then bring up the subject yourself as soon as you can.
  • Take your child's questions seriously; even those that seem frivolous or unimportant to you are still worth your attention. Answer them candidly and matter-of- factly, avoiding sentimentality.
  • Don't lie or try to whitewash facts, but don't feel you have to go into every topic completely, especially for a young child. Remember that your answer must fit a short attention span; try to respond only to the question asked, giving your child just the information he asks for and he can handle.
  • Be prepared to repeat your answers many times, especially those on the most important topics. Children need repetition to test facts to be sure they remain the same from day to day.
  • Notice how a repeated question is phrased. It may seem to be the same question he asked before, but your child may be returning for slightly expanded information, after having digested one or two facts.
  • Be aware that children younger than four years of age have a very imperfect sense of time and no understanding at all of permanence. Forever means almost nothing to them, and you have to repeat the word often when it is part of an answer you give.
  • Remember that children are often unable to give the proper weight to the importance of information. They frequently ask what seem to adults to be trivial or insensitive questions about important topics, some apparently almost designed to hurt, when they simply don't have enough information or experience to be tactful or considerate.

Dealing With Death

One concept that many children have a hard time understanding is death. Parents today often find it harder to talk about death with their children than about sex -- a reversal from Victorian days, when sex was never discussed among proper people, but death was accepted as a matter of fact. Children learned about death when they saw their relatives die at home and attended wakes and family funerals in the parlor. Today people die in hospitals or nursing homes, and many children grow up having never seen a dead body or attended a funeral. Death has become a taboo subject, a shameful secret we ignore, hoping with futile foolishness that it won't come close to us.

Ideally, your child has some comprehension of death before a loved person dies. When you come across dead birds and insects on nature walks or when a family pet dies, you have an opportunity to explain that everything that lives eventually dies. Facts need repeating, of course, but in the course of a few brief experiences, you can talk about how plants, insects, animals, and people live on different time scales; how dead bodies disintegrate and return to nature; and how the dead do not return. One simple way to help children grasp the reality of death is to discuss it in terms of the absence of certain functions: Dead flowers no longer grow and bloom; the dead dog no longer breathes, barks, or eats.

You can also discuss deaths in stories you read to your child. Your library or bookstore offers many excellent children's books that deal specifically withdeath. Remind your child, when you watch television together, that cartoons are make-believe. They usually give the impression death is reversible, temporary, and impersonal; characters rise up whole and go about their business after having been smashed or blown to pieces. Another misconception your child can pick up from television programs and books is that only the wicked die. Your aim in all this is not to fill your child's head with depressing facts, but simply to prepare her a little for the inevitable death of a loved person.

Your child will undoubtedly ask most of the questions about death when a friend or family member has died and you are upset and grieving. Talking about the death and formulating the answers that most help your child will be very difficult for you. Try to remember that you want to be honest with your child, and protecting her from the truth ultimately harms you both. The normal steps of grief are denial, anger, guilt, and, finally, acceptance. Your child's questions will probably fall into these stages, and she will ask you to repeat the answers often. A child's reactions to death are hard to predict, but there are some typical patterns.

Guilt and Anger

To counter denial, tell your child as often as necessary that yes, Grandpa is dead, and will not return, but those who love him will always remember him. Do not use misleading terms such as "sleeping" and "gone away"; the first may well make your child afraid to go to bed, and the second leads her to expect Grandpa's return. And do not use confusing euphemisms such as "called home" and "happy in heaven." Your child will find it hard to understand why people are sad when death sounds so good.

If your child shows anger at the doctor for not curing Grandpa or at God for letting him die, it is probably best to be empathetic. Other family members are angry, too, you can explain, but anger won't change the situation. You can also encourage play therapy if your child is old enough to act out roles with dolls or stuffed animals.

It is in the area of guilt that a vital but not verbalized question may occur: Your child will wonder if she is responsible for Grandpa's death. Children often feel responsible for a death because they have misbehaved or have told someone to go away. Your reassurance is necessary. Continue to talk about Grandpa, stressing always the fun your child had with him and how much Grandpa loved the child.

When your child seems to have accepted the reality of the death, allow her to cry with you, to share your sadness, to complete the grieving process. Continue to talk about Grandpa, visit the grave together, if you wish. Explain and let your child share in any commemorative activities you perform, such as contributing to an organization or planting a tree.

At some point after the death, your child may feel a great deal of fear -- fear she will die, fear you will die and leave her alone and uncared for, nameless fear that if Grandpa can die, anything terrifying and horrible can happen. In spite of your constant reassurance, your child may regress in areas in which she had recently made strides foward, such as night waking, toilet training, or eating. Bear with her; the stage will pass.

Another question your child will inevitably have -- especially if he or she is about to get a baby brother -- is where babies come from. In the next section, we will offer some suggestions for answering your child's questions about reproduction and sexuality.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Answering a Child's Questions About Sex

A younger sibling will naturally make your child question where babies come from.
A younger sibling will naturally make your child question where babies come from.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

 

Any time after the age of about 2 1/2, your child will probably surprise you with the question, "Where do babies come from?" The question itself will not be so surprising, especially if you or someone close to your family is pregnant, but children have a knack for picking a most inconvenient time to ask.

Pregnancy

The best answer, wherever and whenever the question comes up, is brief and factual: "They grow inside their mothers." Later, when your child has absorbed this bit of information and comes back with more questions, you should be equally matter-of-fact in explaining, probably in the following order, that the baby grows in the mother's uterus, a special place in the mother's body; comes out through a birth passage called the vagina; and is conceived when a cell from the father's body joins a cell in the mother's body.

Sexuality

This interest in reproduction did not spring up the instant before your child asked the first question. A child's education in sexuality begins at birth, with the mother's touch, and continues as he is held and cuddled while being fed, bathed, changed, and rocked. Shortly after a baby's discovery of hands and feet as the wonderful and ever-present entertainers they are, he finds the genitals, and the pleasures of self-stimulation are revealed. Toilet training is another milestone; a child handles the genitals frequently and discovers he can control some of the functions of that part of the body.

Toddlers go through a period of curiosity and concern about sexual identity at some point between the ages of two and three, and they have a good many questions. They ask about the differences between boys and girls, about the possibility of somehow losing a penis (or getting one), about why boys stand up to urinate and girls sit down. You must provide both facts and reassurance at this point. Your little girl may feel her comparatively plain sex organs are less special and needs to be comforted by learning that, because of the way they are organized, she, but not her brother or any other male person, can someday give birth to a baby. Your little boy may worry that somehow he may lose his penis and needs to be convinced this will not happen.

Children's questions are more easily answered if their parents have healthy attitudes about sex and nudity and are reasonably open about appearing naked before them. It's not necessary, or advisable, to run a nudist colony in your home, but showing alarm or disapproval about normal curiosity makes both you and your child uncomfortable about a natural subject. Curiosity about the opposite sex can be satisfied if the family consists of children of both sexes or if a child has opportunities to see other children going to the bathroom or being bathed.

In sharing the facts with your child, use the correct terminology for the body parts. Your child can handle the words penis, testes, breasts, vulva, vagina, and uterus as easily as any others and will not have to learn them later. Keep answers short and simple for toddlers; go into no more detail than the child asks for. Sometimes asking a question yourself to check on your child's comprehension may turn up an area that needs clarification. Small children often put isolated bits of information together to come up with some startling misconceptions about pregnancy: for example, mothers become pregnant by eating a lot or by swallowing a seed; a baby is born through the mother's anus or navel; and pregnancy is an illness.

Your hesitancy about explaining sexuality and reproduction to your child is natural and common among most parents. It disappears as you become more accustomed to answering the questions and giving the information so important for your child to have. Do remember to include the roles of love and intimacy and respect in your talks about reproduction with a child of any age. If you do not, you are telling only half the story.

It is important to be honest with your children, even with a subject as personal as conflicts with your spouse. Even happily married couples fight occasionally, and your children might have some questions about it. We'll look at some strategies for answering these questions in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Answering a Child's Questions About Divorce

Your children may not be able to understand divorce, but they will know something is wrong.
Your children may not be able to understand divorce, but they will know something is wrong.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

A mistake many parents make during a separation or divorce is to think a child younger than two years old, too young to ask questions, is not much affected. Your baby does not, of course, understand much of what is going on, but she realizes the situation is different, is upset, and needs special attention at a time when it is hard for you to give it.

Breaking the News

Even very young children should be told the parents are separating before the departing spouse moves out, if possible. You should tell them the truth -- the parent who is leaving will not come back to live. However young they are, they should not be told Daddy is going on a business trip or Mommy is going to visit Grandma. Divorce is somewhat similar to death in that it is final; euphemisms and lies or half-truths do more harm than good and ultimately have to be corrected.

It's best for both spouses to be present to tell children old enough to understand of the coming separation. (Children almost never do really understand divorce -- how can the two people they love the most not love each other?) Parents should share this responsibility, and each can answer the questions pertaining most directly to him or her. If there are two or more children, it's also best to tell them at the same time, however widely separated they are in age. They supply a base of familiarity for each other, and an older child may be able to help a younger one deal with the confusion. Those old enough to handle additional information can receive it at another time.

Dealing With Guilt

Probably the first question a child of any age will ask is "Why?" Your answer may be something like this: "Because we aren't happy living together, and we think it would be best for all of us if we lived apart." The second question may be unasked, but don't doubt that it is in your child's mind: "If you can stop being happy together, can you stop being happy with me?" To attempt to dispel this fear, it is very important for you to say to your child, "We will both always love you; that will never change." Another question most children ask is, "What will happen to me?" It's normal for children to be concerned primarily about themselves. Be as specific in your answer as you possibly can.

The next question children ask may concern the departing parent. Tell them where this parent will live, and how and when they will see him or her. Postpone giving information about changes in financial conditions that may cause a change in your lifestyle or news that one or both parents will remarry soon. Do encourage your child to ask questions about any other aspect of the separation, however, even if they are painful.

You may find your child goes through a process similar to grieving before he accepts the reality of your separation. You may be surprised, and perhaps even hurt, if your child appears to take your announcement very lightly and not to care. In reality, the child may deny what he must accept later, operating on the principle that if he ignores the problem, it will go away. Anger is common among children whose parents separate or divorce -- they are angry at their parents and at a world in which such an unbelievable disaster can occur. Children are apt to look upon one parent as the victim and the other as the villain. If anger is directed at one parent, it is up to the other to discourage it.

Guilt is an almost universal problem for children whose parents separate or divorce. They think that if they had behaved better, had done what they were told, one parent would not be leaving. They need constant reassurance this is not so. Grieving is natural when a marriage dies and a family breaks up, and your child should not be prevented from sharing your sadness and disappointment with the mistaken notion he is being spared.

Your child may ask you a hundred questions a day, and most of them will have simple, easy answers. However, when your child does hit upon a topic that seems a little too advanced or upsetting for them, remember what you've learned in this article. Honesty is always the best policy with your child, but they don't necessarily have to know everything up front.

For more information on parenting including choosing a day care provider, potty training, and disciplining your child, checkout the links on the next page.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles