‘Don’t tell us the bad news all at once’: how to talk to kids about grown-up things
If they’re lucky enough to avoid them at home, children are nonetheless exposed to toxic relationships on TV and social media – Ofcom received more than 3,000 complaints about misogynistic behaviour in just one episode of Love Island in 2022, and TikTok hosted videos of teenage boys ripping girls’ clothes off.
For psychotherapist Cathy Press, who specialises in relationship abuse, parents need to be aware of what their kids are consuming, and encourage empathy if they watch something harmful. “By not discussing toxic relationship traits, we collude with normalising them,” she says. “Rather than yelling ‘How could you watch that?’, which shames the child, ask, ‘How would it feel if somebody ripped your clothes off?’”
Start talking early: a UK study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that by age 13 to 14, 49% of boys and 33% of girls thought hitting a partner would be “OK”. So where do they get that message?
“Kids grow up being exposed to on-screen depictions where men are routinely superheroes who can persuade a woman to do anything,” says Press. “Women put up some token resistance but always give in if they’re pursued long enough. Unchecked, children develop stereotypical, rigid ideas around what’s acceptable in relationships, and believe that one partner should be more dominant.” It’s pervasive, so Press urges parents to “never miss an opportunity to discuss when you see it”.
Take Andrew Tate, the ex-kickboxing champion who has amassed a huge online following and was recently arrested in Romania on charges of human trafficking. Alongside “motivational” fitness content, he advocates male dominance and celebrates violence against women. Scolding your son for watching him could “exacerbate a sense of victimhood”, warns Dr Stephen Burrell, deputy director at the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. “It’s not boys’ fault that people like Tate exist and are given massive, profit-making platforms to express their ideas.” Instead, “help children think critically about his ideas, and how they might be harmful and show them there are lots of different ways of being a man, which involve treating women with equality and respect, and oneself and others with care and kindness”.
Mike Nicholson, a former teacher and creator of the Progressive Masculinity Program, suggests using comparisons: “Compare Tate to rugby player Kevin Sinfield, who possesses a lot of the physical characteristics lads admire in Tate, but who spends his time doing ultra-marathons to raise awareness around motor neurone disease. He’s strong but he’s also selfless. Next to him, Tate looks small, pathetic and selfish.”
Know your terminology. Explain coercive control, which is “someone is pushing you into doing something you don’t want to do, and you don’t feel safe to say no”, says Press. Gaslighting is “being minimised or devalued every time you share an idea or a feeling”. It often follows love bombing: “Putting someone on a pedestal, saying lots of nice things, making promises, only to dismantle that pedestal by gaslighting.” Just as the victim realises they’re unhappy, the love bombing happens again. This is all routinely displayed on shows like Love Island and the Netflix drama Euphoria. No matter what you think of them, “kids are watching, so watch together and pull it to pieces with them”, says Press.
“Never start by talking about human extinction,” says Caroline Hickman, psychotherapist and researcher in young people’s feelings about the climate crisis. Instead, frame it for children. “Talk about how climate change could impact their favourite animal, for example.” Then research it together, and the child will naturally see how it impacts humans, too. “Explain that the chances of wholesale human extinction are really low,” Hickman says.
In her research, Hickman asks children: how can I speak to you about climate change without terrifying you? “Sophia was eight when she said: ‘Tell us the truth, because if you don’t, we can’t trust you. But don’t tell us the bad news all at once – tell us some bad news, then some good.’”
Don’t tell them not to worry. “Climate anxiety is triggered by concern about the climate, but the distress comes when children realise those in power are failing them.” Brush it off and you could be put in the same category. “Tell them you’re worried too, so ask what can we do as a family, as a school and as a community, globally? Placing their anxiety in a bigger context is reassuring,” says Hickman.
If you don’t fully understand it, say: ‘Let’s find out together.’ You don’t have to be the expert
Discuss activists, and innovative solutions. “I tell children about the six young people who are suing 33 European governments in the European court of human rights for failing to act on climate change, and say: ‘Look – this is what children can do.’”
“If you’re asked why you have a car, say: ‘Brilliant question; let’s talk about it,’” Hickman says. If they ask why you fly, “discuss why not all flying is the worst thing – it’s private jets, empty planes. Don’t get sucked into talking about personal carbon footprint, which was developed by oil companies to make individuals feel responsible.”
Colourism and white privilege
You may feel well-versed in racism, but less confident discussing more nuanced issues, such as colourism. “If you don’t fully understand it, say: ‘Let’s find out together.’ You don’t have to be the expert,” says Uju Asika, author of Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World. “It’s the idea that the closer you are to fair skinned, the better you are.”
Asika recommends a picture book – Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o – for younger children, and to use the news as a talking point. For example, a newspaper story about Kwasi Kwarteng was wrongly accompanied by a photograph of Bernard Mensah, a Bank of America boss – misidentification being a common micro-aggression. “It happens typically with dark-skinned black celebrities with very recognisable faces, who are still being undermined,” says Asika.
When it comes to white privilege, she suggests parents explain that there are barriers white people don’t face that others have to. “This isn’t about the child feeling responsible, but noting injustice and thinking what they can do.” Worried this message will feel bleak to a non-white child? Asika recommends also talking about “resistance and the countless examples of people who have overcome barriers”.
Contextualise history – not all people of one skin colour were “good” or “bad”, “powerful” or “oppressed” (this is explored in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story). Teach that racism isn’t only violence or name calling but is also, say, always characterising non-white people a certain way on TV. Empower them to be part of the change by questioning that.
Young children will sometimes say things that make you balk, but stay calm. Don’t freak out if they say a friend has “weird hair” or their house smells funny, says Asika. “Ask if they have thought how that person might feel if you said that.” Also recognise that you may need to broaden their horizons if you live somewhere without much diversity. “If you can travel to an environment where people live, eat and pray differently, do it,” says Asika. “If not, you can access the world from a book – I was born in Nigeria and as a young girl I was reading Famous Five books. Explore global culture, art, music, or learn a language that isn’t taught on the curriculum. Be intentional and creative.”
From the get-go, avoid using “cute” names for genitals, which sets up embarrassment, says Yoan Reed, co-founder of sexual education website Outspoken Sex Ed. “When a child understands the basics about bodies, reproduction, rights and developing sexuality, it is far easier to discuss sex, consent and porn,” she says. Making anything sexual a taboo also discourages a child from confiding in you if they see distressing content. “Whether they have deliberately been looking for information about sex or been exposed to it, they can feel shame or fear the repercussions,” says Reed. Don’t get angry; give them comfort and support, and explain that what they’ve seen isn’t real sex.
Children can be exposed to porn as young as seven. If that happens, she says, tell your child: “If you see videos of people touching each other with no clothes on, it can make you feel strange. Close your eyes – and the device – and come and talk to me. You won’t be in any trouble.”
As children reach puberty and become curious about sex and bodies, don’t expect school to do all the teaching: explain that porn “gives unrealistic expectations of sex, bodies, and gender roles, and that it often exhibits misogynistic, homophobic/transphobic activity that can be scary”, says Reed. Describe it as “entertainment meant for adults; fantasy not reality”, and point out the differences between porn and real sex. “Porn doesn’t show communication, consent, contraception, mutual pleasure and emotions,” says Reed, who suggests likening it to action movies. “Cars race, people jump off them and fire off on all cylinders – nothing like cars on the motorway.”
Worried you’re on the back foot with a child in their teens? “Ask what they know about inappropriate content, consent, gender inequality, misogyny and gender-based violence and let their responses develop further conversations,” says Reed. She suggests talking when driving, as there’s no direct eye contact, and highlighting media stories that reference porn.
Transphobia is a big issue, especially on social media, so children have questions. “Explain that transphobia refers to any negative feelings, opinions and actions towards people who do not identify as cisgender,” says Chris Grant, psychotherapist and founder of The Queer Therapist. “This provides an opportunity to talk about what they know or assume about gender, and to begin a wider, gentle conversation on racism, homophobia and ableism, and how to promote tolerance and respect difference.”
Ask why they think the trans person is ‘weird’, which can help them identify gender stereotypes in their thinking
If a small child, a three- to six-year-old, say, refers to a trans person as “weird”, Grant suggests parents “question with curiosity this rigid thinking and provide counter examples”. Explain, say, that boys wear skirts in many parts of the world. “Describe how just because someone looks a certain gender doesn’t mean that’s how they identify, so it’s important to ask.”
For children up to 10, “ask why they think the trans person is ‘weird’, which can help them identify gender stereotypes in their thinking”, says Grant. Teens want to fit in, which puts those who don’t at risk of bullying. “Remind young people that many different gender identities and expressions exist, and all are valid and valuable.”
When news broke last summer that the US Supreme Court had eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion, many young people had questions. Dr Helen Dring-Turner, resource development coordinator at young people’s health charity Brook, says an abortion could be explained to small children as “when someone is pregnant and decides with the help of a doctor not to be any more”. This can be expanded on as a child gets older, to reflect the many reasons behind this decision, she says. “The important common thread is choice, the fact the pregnant person shouldn’t be judged, and the use of factual language such as ‘termination’, ‘abortion’ and ‘foetus’.”
Dr Lesley Hoggart, Open University associate dean, and co-director of the website Abortion Talk, advises explaining that having a child is not a direct consequence of sex, but a choice. Little ones may be baffled as to why anyone wouldn’t “want” a baby, so Hoggart suggests adapting language. “Say, ‘Babies are very special, so we think about the right time to have one to give them the best life possible.’” Don’t worry the topic is too grown-up: “If it’s important enough for them to ask, it should be important enough for us to answer,” says Dring-Turner.
As they get older, children can pick up strong opinions. “Listen, and ask how it was formed,” advises Dring-Turner. “Then remind your child that our opinions are formed from a range of places and that we can change them if we learn new information, that nobody is always right or wrong and that we should respect people’s views.”
Hoggart advises explaining that abortion is common, that “you will have friends or relatives who have had an abortion. That breaks down the idea that it’s this horrendous, out-of-the-ordinary thing.” It also encourages empathy. Finally, she suggests pointing out the alternative: forced pregnancy.
Many parents are troubled by female pop stars’ hyper‑sexualised clothing, from Megan Thee Stallion’s thong one-piece at the 2022 Billboard Music Awards to Spanish singer Rosalía’s overtly sexualised video for Hentai. “Explain that pop stars are at work, wearing costumes because it’s their job to be seen,” says Jerilee Claydon, clinical psychotherapist and parenting educator, who also suggests exposing them to other role models. “I’ve put Greta Thunberg in front of my seven-year-old so she’s seeing a young girl doing great things who isn’t dressed provocatively.”
Don’t say ‘Stop dancing like that.’ Say ‘That looks fun, and you can do that at home but not outside of the house’
Is your five-year-old dancing sexily in front of the mirror? “Don’t say: ‘Stop dancing like that’,” says Claydon. “Say: ‘That looks fun, and you can do that at home but not outside of the house. Just like we don’t take our clothes off in the supermarket but you can run around naked in our garden.” Claydon says responding calmly is key, because “if a child feels seen, soothed and safe they’ll be more likely to trust you on what’s the right thing to wear”.
Explain healthy attention to older children who want to wear revealing clothing. “A 12- or 13-year-old doesn’t understand a man looking at her is putting her at risk. She feels this lovey rush of attention, which gives a false sense of security,” says Claydon. “Explain that the feeling isn’t wrong, but that they may get attention from someone older who won’t know how to keep them safe.” If an older teen goes out in skimpy clothes, ask how they felt afterwards. “If they tell you they felt uncomfortable, don’t say ‘I told you so!’, say ‘That sounds horrible. You really liked that outfit, how did that feel?’”
Question the need, too: “If they have a compulsion to wear revealing clothes, is it because it’s their only source of attention? How else you can build their self-esteem?” Finally, remember that despite growing up watching Madonna and Cher perform in next to nothing, we didn’t all end up in leather catsuits.