How to engage young people effectively in difficult conversations.
Take yourself back to the last time someone said to you, “we need to talk”. It may have been when you were 6 years old. Maybe you were 17. It could even have been last week. Either way, I can almost guarantee that the initial emotion that you felt was panic. You probably thought of everything you have ever done wrong in your entire life and emotionally disconnected with the conversation out of fear… And then they just wanted to know what you wanted for tea.
The big question is; why do we react in such a negative way and disengage with such a neutral statement?
We live in a society where we are taught from a very young age that adults have an authoritative hold over us, meaning that children instinctively think they are in trouble if adults speak to them in a tone that is even slightly different than normal. Because of this, children find it hard to trust us and engage with what we are saying when it comes to sensitive and rarely talked about topics such as rape, abuse or neglect, as we tend to lower our tone to sound more serious.
So how do we change this?
Many psychology academics such as Richard Rose (2012), Dan Hughes (2012) and Betsy de Thierry (2017) are opening the door to a new trauma informed approach to child interaction. This involves communicating while keeping in mind adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that young people (and adults alike) may have endured – with 47% of individuals reporting at least one ACE (Public Health England 2018; Bellis 2014) – while also actively avoiding situations that may re-traumatise the individual. The child’s surroundings may mean that they are being re-traumatised daily, however this reiterates the importance for trauma informed interaction. By having at least one person in their life who makes an effort to build attachments, provide consistency, trust and make them feel safe in conversations, the child will almost definitely open up and confide in them. Whether the child has experienced what it is you are talking about (rape, abuse, neglect ect.) or not; whether you’ve known them since birth, or just a day; it is still important to maintain a trauma informed approach when communicating with them.
Here are a few simple ways you can do this…
Using visual images and activities while having difficult conversations with children can be beneficial to both you and the child (Parkinson, 1987; O’Brien and Loudon, 1985), whether the activities are aimed at younger children or older teenagers. Providing a fun and relaxed atmosphere will prevent the child from feeling panicked or that they are in trouble as the tone will be light. This will enable them to build attachments with you through play which will naturally translate into trust, while also allowing them to lose themselves in the activity at hand if they feel that the conversation is getting stressful for them. This may happen often for children and young people with ACEs. Equally, activities and play provides a sensory distraction for the child, giving them a soothing output if they feel themselves getting stressed or anxious at any point.
An important thing to remember when interacting with children regarding difficult conversations, is to be consistently soft in your facial features and your tone of voice. By doing this you’ll allow the child to feel that you are trustworthy, giving them more of a reason to open up to you about the sensitive topic, despite the discomfort they may have been talking about it. Providing soft facial expressions will also make you appear interested in what they have to say, making the child feel that their opinion is valued and appreciated, allowing them to feel comfortable in speaking to you, while also letting the child feel safe and secure in the conversation; that you are not going to judge them for what they have to say.
Let them speak
The most important thing to do to make a child feel that what they have to say is valued, is to give them time to translate what they are thinking into words, as young children especially may not know what their opinion is on a sensitive subject. The best way to kick-start the process of getting them to think is by asking them open ended questions such as, “what do you think about this”, “how do you think it would make someone feel if…”, or “why do you think people do this?”. Asking simple yes or no questions will only cause the child to answer with what they think you want to hear (especially if they have ACEs). Patience is vital as it may take some encouragement for the child to say what they’re really thinking, which is why it’s so important to build attachments with the child beforehand.
These tips to help engage a child in difficult conversations are simple and can be done with virtually none, or very little, planning prior to the conversation. By merely opening yourself up to the trauma informed approach you are able to make the child feel as though they can trust you and therefore tell you what they really think. Just by creating an attachment and using the above tips with that child, you are creating equality between them and yourself. This eliminates the authoritative relationship between adult and child that has been taught throughout society, and introduces feelings of relaxation and trust, letting the child allow themselves to fully engage in the conversation, where they may otherwise hold back.
Written by: Kat Monkton, Cherished Volunteer and Mentor
- Parkinson (1987), Separation, Divorce and Families, Hampshire and London: MacMillan education LTD
- Rose (2012), Life Story Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Model for Practice, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley publishers
- Hughes (2012), Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
- De Thierry, D. Shemmings (2017), The Simple Guide to Childhood Trauma: What Is It and How to Help, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
- 5. Public Health England (2018), An Introduction To Adverse Childhood Experiences, Available at: https://www1.bps.org.uk/system/files/user-files/Division%20of%20Clinical%20Psychology/public/ACES%20and%20social%20injustice%20_DCP%20SW.pdf [Accessed 28th October 2018)