Talking to Kids Can Be Tough, but Vital

Article excerpt

We were hearing it long before the Littleton shootings.

The advice, that is -- from therapists and spokesmen and women encouraging us to talk to our kids.

In fact, in the wake of Littleton, we were exposed to the media's talking heads talking about how the Denver-area parents should have talked to their kids, the images of busloads of grief counselors sent to Colorado, the articles about using Littleton to talk to children about violence and safety. All of it actually seems only an uptick in the national mantra that's been chanted at us for years: Talk to them, talk to your kids.

Easy for them to say.

NBC's "The More You Know" public-service campaign, for example -- the ones with celebrities delivering advice about drugs and AIDS -- has been saying it in convenient sound bites since 1989. There's also a new "Talking With Kids About Tough Issues" initiative from Children Now, a child-advocacy group, and the Kaiser Family Foundation that has its own TV spots and magazine pullout.

So, OK, we get the point. Talk to my kids? What no one seems to say is how. Parents may well feel they talk to their kids already -- what little good it seems to do.

"The real key is not talking so much as listening," said Tom Van Hoose, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. By listening, Van Hoose means more than just asking children questions and waiting for answers. It also means observing their behavior and their friends, talking with their teachers. "It means listening for the things you're not hearing," he said.

"Talking by itself is not a magic bullet," said Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center. "Talking lets parents set limits, learn if help is needed."

But parental example is also important, he said, as is parental consistency (sticking to the guidelines you set for the kids).

And sometimes, he said, what may be needed is professional help.

The most important thing, both doctors agree, is establishing an "open environment" early with children, letting them know they can turn to their parents when they encounter something new and confusing, something they're not sure how to handle.

"The surveys," said Gallagher, "indicate that kids want to hear about sex and drugs from their parents -- more than from their friends or the media. But the surveys also indicate that kids are aware these subjects make their parents uncomfortable."

So the kids are not likely to initiate the conversation.

Parents can counteract that some, Gallagher said, "by starting the discussion early on, between 8 and 12. They can start even earlier than that. Just so kids hear things from their parents and feel they can ask questions."

And just so they know their parents aren't simply going to preach at them, Van Hoose said. …