Talking to young people about difficult things

I've been asked to present at a town hall about why it is important to engage our young people in challenging conversations about difficult subjects. While preparing my presentation, I came across the most fascinating article.  It summarizes a study where participants chose between the following two options:

  1. Read an article about same-sex marriage that agrees with your personal opinion and be entered into a drawing where you may win $7
  2. Read an article about same-sex marriage that disagrees with your personal opinion and be entered into a drawing where you may win $10

63% of participants, an overwhelming majority, chose option one. That's an incredible testament to how far people will go to avoid negative feelings. We avoid them in big ways, but also in small, everyday decision-making.

Deliberately creating environments that welcome tension and discomfort as necessary, important steps in the fostering of critical thinking skills and the willingness to explore the tension between individual liberties and the common good is, in my view, one of the primary responsibilities of parenting/mentoring our kids.

Talking with our kids about difficult subjects accomplishes five important goals:

  1. Family bonding: relationships grow stronger when we build trust, intimacy, and solve problems. Talking is one way to do all three. Conversing with young people about sex, even if the conversation is focused on house rules/expectations around romantic relationships, is infinitely better than total silence (which the internet would most certainly fill with b*llshit).
  2. Provides a low-risk place to test and form values: It is much, much better for your teenager to argue with you about whether or not sex outside of marriage is OK, rather than contemplate the question for the first time when they're at a party and someone asks them to "go upstairs".
  3. Models skills in making values-based decisions: Let's say you want to talk to your teen about underage drinking. Let's suppose you really, really don't want your kid drinking before they are 21 because you think it's dangerous, stupid, and against the law. Rather than shouting, "JUST SAY NO! As long as you live under MY ROOF, you'll abide my MY RULES, and THAT'S FINAL," try modeling your own decision-making process, so that your teen not only gets a chance to understand your point of view, but sees how people put their values into action. You might say, "Look, I know that other families and other people make different decisions than the ones I want you, and us, to make. I know that being different is hard. In this case, though, it's worth it. Underage drinking is a risky thing to do. It can lead to some very serious mistakes with life-changing consequences: drinking and driving, an increased risk of sexual assault, school/sports expulsions, and even criminal arrests. I know that it can seem like a lot of fun, and in some cases, nothing bad happens. Everyone gets lucky from time to time. Still, when I think about the sort of risks like the ones I just mentioned, it's not worth it. I want you to wait until you're of legal age to drink. It's important to respect the law, and most importantly, respect yourself and your future."
  4. Model skills in information-gathering: turn on the news and within five minutes, you'll hear someone say, "FAKE NEWS!" In this day and age, it is critical that we teach our children how to find reliable sources for high-quality information. For example, let's say you want to talk to your kid about sexting. Rather than say, "DON'T, now let me see your phone...", run a google search together to find out what the laws are where you live. Google, "Illinois sexting" and you'll see many different kinds of results: law firm blogs, news articles about teens in trouble, random blog posts, and Wikipedia. Go through the results together and point out which ones are reliable, such as police department websites, and which ones are not (random v-loggers on youtube). Once you find good information, go through it together, then use it as a starting point for conversation.
  5. Model communication skills: talking through awkwardness and tension with people we care about is a necessary life skill. If you wish to set your children up for success in future relationships of all types, it is important to teach them that it is OK to bumble through conversations about deeply personal subjects, like sex, and they're get less bumbling with practice. Teach them that it is reasonable to expect respect, even in the midst of disagreement. Teach them to sit with their discomfort and give them chances to build the emotional resilience necessary to be honest with themselves and the people they love. Teach them that love isn't zero-sum and, therefore, disagreements don't diminish it in the least. Most importantly, teach them that conversations are not once-in-a-lifetime chances: they're thoughtfully-constructed, habitual expressions of faith, hope, and curiosity.

Thanks for reading! You can find me on Facebook, sometimes on Twitter, and always at

Leave a comment