How to have difficult conversations with children

Introduction

If you work or volunteer with children and young people you’re likely to have conversations about difficult or upsetting topics.

You won’t always have a chance to plan ahead for these conversations as they can happen unexpectedly. It might be that a child or young person raises a sensitive issue with you, or an event such as a terrorist attack, death or serious illness triggers the need to talk to the children you work with. 

Taking time to prepare for a conversation and reflecting back on what was said can help you feel confident in raising and addressing challenging topics. This could help you plan a session on topics such as climate change, sex and relationships or discrimination.

Whatever has happened to upset a child or young person it’s really important they have someone they can have an open discussion with:

“I called Childline last week and spoke to a counsellor about my low confidence in school due to bullying. I found it really helpful to talk and it made me feel able to talk to my teacher who really helped.”

Anonymous contact to Childline (NSPCC, 2018)

References

NSPCC (2018) The courage to talk: Childline annual review 2017/18. London: NSPCC.

Preparing for a conversation

Preparing for a conversation

If you’re planning to talk to children about a sensitive topic, it’s helpful to work out how you will broach the subject in advance.

Group or individually

Decide the most appropriate group size for your discussion. This depends on the topic, the needs and maturity of the children involved and the practicalities if where and how you work with the children.

  • Is this something that’s best addressed in a large group like an assembly?
  • Are there benefits to having a discussion in an established group like a team or a class?
  • Would children feel more comfortable in smaller groups, or maybe even having a one-to-one chat with a trusted adult?

If you are working one-to-one with a child, there are extra measures you need to take.

> Make sure you have enough adults to supervise children while group work is taking place

> Read our guidance on lone working with a child or small group of children

Provide a range of activities

Not everyone feels comfortable talking openly during a group discussion so it might be helpful to consider the different ways children and young people can explore a topic. This might include:

  • arts and crafts
  • drama and improvisation
  • debating
  • taking positive action, for example raising awareness about a particular issue.

Conversation starters

Reading is a great way to start a discussion. If a topic has been in the news recently, you might find it helpful to provide children with a selection of articles about it. Or you could share a book about a particular subject and ask them about what they think.

We’ve compiled a list of books from our library catalogue to help you start conversations around:

Lesson plans

Our free lesson plans and teaching resources will help you talk to children about a range of topics including body boundaries, sex and relationships, bullying and online safety. Adapt them to the needs of your group.

Speak out. Stay Safe

Speak out. Stay Safe helps primary schools talk to children about abuse and neglect. Our age-appropriate assemblies and workshops help children understand what abuse is and how they can get help if they need it.

> Sign your school up for a session

Having a conversation

Having a conversation

Whether you’re talking to a group or an individual, there are some general principles that will help you discuss sensitive subjects with children and young people.

Help them feel comfortable

Acknowledge that the topic isn’t easy to talk about but explain why it’s important to talk about it.

Show you’re listening

Encourage children to talk openly and make it clear that you value their opinions. You could set ground rules, such as not interrupting and respecting other people’s points of view.

Give them time

Allow children to set their own pace - don’t push them to say more than they want to. They may need time to process certain topics – so make sure they know they can come back to you another time if they need to.

Stay neutral

Avoid displaying strong emotions such as shock or embarrassment in response to something a child or young person says. This might discourage them from sharing their experiences with you.

Be open and honest

Encourage children and young people to ask questions. Answer them as honestly as possible, whilst taking into consideration their age and emotional maturity.

Get your facts straight

If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so – don’t provide young people with information that’s incorrect. You could look for the answer together, recommend where they can find information or research and share what you have found next time you meet.

Use the right language

Make sure children understand the terminology associated with the topic and that it is age-appropriate. Avoid using euphemisms. Look at the language used on resources developed by and for children such as the Childline website.

Be clear about confidentiality

It’s important that children feel able to share their experiences with you. But if you have any concerns about their wellbeing you must make a report following your child protection procedures. Never promise to keep things a secret and explain that you have a responsibility to tell people who can help.

Put support in place

Following your conversation, children may have further questions or want to talk more about the issue. Make sure they know who they can talk to.

Think about how to let parents know what you’ve been talking about, so that they can provide further support at home. Children and young people can also contact Childline if they need support afterwards. 

Consider setting some time aside as a follow-up session to give children the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings.

Recognise the signs

Talking about difficult or upsetting topics might make some children think about other things that are happening in their lives. 

Make sure you are equipped to recognise the signs that a child you are talking to may have experienced abuse, and know how to respond.

> Watch our animation on responding to a child’s disclosure of abuse

> Learn about best practices for recognising and responding to abuse

Support from Childline

Support from Childline

If you’re discussing a sensitive topic or issue with children and young people, you must make sure they have access to support afterwards.

Make sure they know Childline can give them confidential advice and support. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also get support and advice via the Childline website

They can also use resources such as Art box to write or draw about their feelings.

You can also download or order our Childline posters and wallet cards and display these across schools, encouraging children to contact Childline if they need to talk.

It might be particularly helpful to highlight the following resources on the Childline website: