A new book by an alumna with expertise in child development outlines the best ways to help kids open up about what’s really on their minds
Robyn Silverman will never forget what it felt like to be bullied as a kid—and to see the adults around her flailing.
In one particularly scarring moment, Silverman’s teacher sent Silverman out of the room and called the rest of the class together to discuss how they were treating their classmate. When Silverman was brought back, the teacher addressed her. “All the kids were looking at me,” she recalls, “and the teacher asked me, ‘What do you want to say?’ And I thought to myself, ‘No, what do you want to say?’ I was just a kid—I didn’t know what to say. And I wasn’t the one who should have had to say anything.”
Now, as a renowned expert in child development and communicating with children, Silverman, AG04, aims to give adults the tools to talk to kids about bullying—or any other difficult topic. Her recent book, the bestseller How to Talk to Kids About Anything: Tips, Scripts, Stories, and Steps to Make Even the Toughest Conversations Easier, lays out research-based approaches to the kinds of discussions parents and others often feel ill-equipped to handle.
Tufts Now caught up with Silverman, who earned a Ph.D. in child development from Tufts, to discuss her top tips for talking to kids, no matter what subject comes up.
Ultimately, Silverman says, it’s connection that matters. “The studies keep telling us that when we discuss tough topics with kids, they are much less likely to engage in risky behavior,” she explains. “And they want to talk to us—even about the really difficult things.”
Here’s how to get the conversation started.
Drop your own agenda and just listen.
“I often get asked what we should talk about with kids,” Silverman says, “and when we should talk about those things. Most of the time, it’s not about pushing your agenda—it’s about listening.”
For example, Silverman’s 14-year-old daughter recently asked her, “What if I was at a party and my friends were drinking? What if I were drinking? How angry would you be, and how much trouble would I be in?”
To Silverman, this was “parenting gold”—the perfect moment in which to tell her daughter something she already had at the ready. “I said, ‘The thing I want you to know in that moment is that I will always respond to you. I will come get you no matter where you are, no matter what time. You will never get in trouble with me for telling me the truth or asking for help.’ I also made clear that I wanted to have another conversation soon about how she might find herself in that situation to begin with, but that the most important thing was that she knew she could call me for help.”
Silverman had anticipated that she wanted to say that to her daughter someday; by listening, she found the right moment to convey the message.
Know what approach will appeal to your child.
Not every child can be spoken to in the same way, Silverman says. “You might have a child who’s very sensitive or one who’s very physical. Some children respond best to stories, some are scientific and like statistics. There’s never one method that works best.”
What’s important, Silverman advises, is that you know what method your kid will appreciate. If you have more than one child, recognize that you might need different approaches for each of them.
Have many small conversations over a long stretch of time.
“People always think of THE sex talk,” Silverman says: “T-H-E, in big letters.” But, she notes, it’s more effective to have lots of little talks along the way, first teaching kids the correct names for body parts, for example, then explaining the concept of consent. Other relevant topics can include kindness, romance, love, respect, homophobia, and body image, Silverman says.
“All these little talks lead up to the mechanics talk you might have when your child eventually asks you, ‘But how does the baby get in there?’”
The same concept applies broadly across topics. “Death, pornography, mistakes, failure, friendship, money, budgeting—these are topics we all consider broaching with our children,” Silverman says, “but they get passed over because we think, ‘Somebody else will do it,’ or ‘They’re not old enough yet.’ But they’re always old enough for some aspect of any topic. It’s about having a series of small talks so that you lay the groundwork for the most significant conversations—the bigger topics that come later, when the stakes are higher.”
Don’t fear awkwardness or mistakes.
It’s easy, especially when you or your child are feeling awkward, to bungle a conversation, Silverman notes. “But you can always return to it, acknowledge what went wrong, and start over.”
For example, she says, “You can go to your child later and say, ‘You asked me a question the other day, and I shut it down. I was feeling awkward, but I want you to have the right information.’ Or, ‘When I responded to your question the other day, I wish I’d asked you your opinion, because it sounded like you were trying to tell me something, and I wasn’t really listening. Can we try that again?’”
Inevitably, whether a conversation goes well or not, there still could be awkwardness, Silverman says. “But your kids still want to talk to you. They want to know, and you want them to know, that they don’t have to go to the internet or to the kid at the back of the bus. They can come to you and ask about anything at all.”
If you’re not a parent but an educator, coach, or other adult who spends time with kids, be a bridge to the right people.
Research has shown, Silverman points out, that many young people don’t feel that they have at least three adults they can turn to in a time of challenge. “I always say, be one of the three. If you’re not the person they most need to talk to, be the bridge that connects them to the right person. Kids need all the adults around them to be a foundation so that they can launch into the world with healthy ideas and a good understanding of who they are and how to connect to and interact with others.”