How to Answer Your Child's Difficult Questions
Last year my family was gripped by Bieber Fever. I had it worst. I mean, how cute is that kid?! And what a refreshing change from the perennially underwear-clad, foul-mouthed “artists” my kids might otherwise be inclined to listen to. Not to mention, that “Baby” is one catchy song.
So when Justin Bieber: Never Say Never came out (how cute is that? A 17-year-old making a documentary of his short life!) and my 8-year-old, Molly, wanted to see it, I took her. The movie didn’t disappoint. While not quite a rags-to-riches tale, it did chronicle how Bieber’s rise to stardom was fueled not only by YouTube and raw talent, but also—and possibly more—by hard work and perseverance. There was no cursing (the worst it got was “knuckleheads”—how cute is that?), no inappropriate sexual references, no subtle bad messages.
When we got home, I talked about how much time Bieber spent rehearsing, taking vocal lessons, etc. But what did my 8-year-old want to know?
“Didn’t the movie say Justin Bieber’s mom was a teenager when she had him? How is that possible? How can a teenager and someone who’s not married have a baby?”
My brilliant, on-the-spot response? “I don’t want to talk about that right now!” She tried to press, and I refused. About an hour later, she asked me again. I’d had some time to think about it and said something about how teenagers sometimes make bad decisions, and it really is better to have two parents who want to stay together forever. Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy her.
That was one crisis averted, but I couldn’t stop wondering: How should you respond when your kid asks a question you’re not sure how to answer?
According to William Kirby, PhD, a psychologist who practices in Garden City, New York, and specializes in mood disorders like anxiety (so he’s seen his share of anxious parents and anxious adolescents), the gist of my response was OK—it was my tone that was wrong.
The next time your child asks you a question you’re not sure how to answer, Dr. Kirby says “it’s a good strategy to say, ‘That’s a good question. I’m going to think about how best to answer it, and then we’ll talk about it.’” Then, make sure you follow through, even if your child seems to have forgotten about it.
Don’t let your child bully you into answering right away. Keep assuring her that you need to think about how to respond and that you will get back to her. This is often hard for moms and dads because “parents feel they have to have the answers to everything,” Dr. Kirby says. “But nobody does. It’s a good thing for children to realize that their parents have to research some things—just like they will have to.”
Bonus benefit: If your child sees that you will answer her questions calmly and thoroughly, she’ll be more likely to come to you with tough issues in the future.
It seemed like good expert advice, so I decided to put it to the real-mom test the next time a difficult question popped up. Of course, it happened sooner rather than later. We were in the restroom at a roller rink when Molly noticed the tampon dispenser and asked me why there were vending machines in the bathroom.
“That’s a good question,” I told her. “Let’s talk about it when we get home.” She pressed a little, but I (calmly) stood my ground.
That night I brought it up and answered her question. She was a little freaked by my explanation, but not terribly. And I actually did walk away with the feeling that she’d be more likely to come to me with questions in the future.