9 questions you must ask your child to ensure they are safe
Children do not open up about things that bother them on their own. Most parents of children who were bullied or abused and those who dealt with eating disorders or suicidal thoughts had no idea about the condition until it became serious. Here are 9 questions to ask your child and ways to reassure them.
Effective communication begins with listening. How often have you watched your child stomp off in the middle of a conversation? Perhaps, the problem isn't in what you are saying, but what they want to say and you are failing to listen.
Here are nine questions that you need to ask your child to ensure they are growing up healthy and in an atmosphere that is nourishing and conducive to their overall development. Don't attempt to cover all the questions in one conversation. Find opportune moments to discuss different topics. Be aware of their mood and general interest in the subject. For example, if your child talks to you about a celebrity who was admitted to the hospital, that would be the right moment to start a conversation about eating disorders or body image. Or, if your child's friend disclosed a family fight, that would be a good time to explore your child's understanding of emotional abuse vs healthy fights.
The agenda here is NOT to talk or share your wisdom. The primary objective is to LISTEN. To be receptive to what your child feels, thinks, and believes about the subject. Once you've listened completely, you can share your thoughts and make it a two-way conversation.
1. Is there someone who scares or bothers you?
Bullying: This question opens up an entire range of subjects to explore. While children's understanding of fear varies based on their age, anything that poses a threat to them should be taken seriously. Parents of bullied children often have no idea what their kids go through in school or in other peer groups. Even if you have a great relationship with your child, this is an important question to ask. If you haven't established a relationship that allows your child to open up to you without hesitation, start with asking a question like this: "Is there someone who bothers you at school?" Affirm your child often that you are there for them. "I'm here if you want to talk about something." Or, "You can talk to me anytime."
2. How do you feel when people talk about their body? (weight/shape/skin color/features)
Body image: Instead of directly asking them what they think about their own body, approaching body image concerns indirectly allows your child to open up better. Pre-teens and teens go through immense pressure to fit in and now have celebrities to compete with on social media. Gently probe them on their understanding of the "perfect body" and what this means to them. You might be amazed at the responses (I hate my nose; I think I have a weird forehead; I'm ugly; I'm too skinny/too fat; I hate my thighs; I wish I was hairy like the other guys in class; I can't look at the mirror anymore).
While these might seem dramatic to you, understanding their insecurities makes you more compassionate to their struggle to make peace with who they are and who they are becoming. In different occasions, affirm them with body-positive compliments (You are beautiful/handsome; That looks great on you) and praises that reinforce their self-worth beyond their looks (You are such a good writer; You're so talented).
3. Hmm... What do you understand by X? (sex, intercourse, penis, making out, etc.)
NOT, "Where did you pick that word?" or "Who taught you that?" or worse, "Shhh... Don't say it out loud."
Sex: This is a tricky one. The ideal time to ask this question is when your child mentions a certain word or asks you about one of these topics. Some kids pop these questions early on, and you might be surprised and unprepared. Ideally, it's best to think ahead of the conversation you would like to have about these topics so that you don't confuse your child by your initial reaction.
Children pick on your nonverbal messages as much as they do by your words. Listen to their response first. Encourage them to ask more questions. Do not use pet names for private parts. Ideally, don't wait until they are teenagers to have this conversation. It's always best they learn facts from you rather than pick opinions, assumptions, beliefs, and fad from peers and the media.
Experts suggest that you break the sex-related conversation into smaller chats. This will allow your child to process the information and give her or him the time to understand their own feelings and thoughts around these topics.
4. Is there someone or something that makes you uncomfortable?
Sexual abuse: While many parents have become proactive in teaching the children the difference between a good touch and a bad touch, most parents are still not sure of how best to equip their children against strangers, family members and known people who may unconsciously cross physical boundaries or knowingly manipulate young children in the guise of being friendly.
It's important to talk about not just the bad touch, but also inform them about other actions (flashing, dirty talk, sexting, staring etc.) that come under abuse. You do not need to get into the details, but you need to make it clear that anything that makes them uncomfortable is NOT okay and that you are there to listen to them and protect them.
For parents of teenagers, it is important to talk about the subtleties involved in physical intimacy and the line that differentiates it from coercion within relationships. Listen to them and later discuss consent; especially if you are parenting a son. Ask them about their understanding of consent.
5. What do you think about drugs?
While this might seem like introducing your child to a dangerous territory, chances are your pre-teen or teenager is likely to be somewhat familiar with the topic or at least identify names of drugs. Use your discretion to determine the right age for this. Do a little research beforehand to answer their questions.
Be specific and factual. Based on the age, give details on the risk of overdose, how to say NO when pressurized, and health concerns involved in substance abuse. If you think your child might be using drugs, spend a lot of time listening to them, especially their feelings, before you go on to talk about the risk factors etc. Active listening plays a huge role in bringing teenagers and adults out of drugs.
6. How are you feeling these days?
Depression, eating disorders, suicide: It's amazing how parents miss symptoms of depression in children until it gets to a more serious stage. Keep tab of mood swings, long bouts of sadness or irritability, and lack of interest in regular activities. Asking them "How are you feeling these days?" requires a response that gives a wider perspective than just "How are you?"
Other questions that help detect mental health concerns are:
How do you feel about ____? (any change in their life: e.g. shifting to a new neighborhood, sibling moving out, change of school, parents' argument, grandma's illness)
Is there a reason you don't ____? (activities your child stopped engaging in or change in behavior: Is there a reason you don't feel like going for soccer practice, or going to Jess's party, or stopped eating desserts?
Do you feel lonely or not understood at times? (This seems like too direct a question for a child, but the other option is to assume your child isn't lonely when he or she might actually be. Sharing your own stories of times you felt lonely at school or home, or not understood will help your child navigate through her confusion and pain.)
7. Do you feel guilty or scared and do things because of it?
Emotional abuse: Children are let to navigate completely alone through the tricky terrains of emotions. Neither schools nor parents spend time understanding the child's confusion around her own emotions and those of others. It's important for your child to have your permission to feel everything she or he does and let them know that no one can force them or manipulate them to be or do something they are not okay with.
This could be a friend who guilt-trips your child to a party she doesn't want to attend or a nosy aunt or grandparent who emotionally blackmails your child to follow a certain religion. Listen to your child's understanding of power between girls and boys, between parent and child, between friends, and between partners and clarify their questions with honest responses and insights from your life.
8. How do you feel about being you? (boy, girl, teenager, a twin, only African-American in your class)
Identity (generic, gender and sexual): This question means a lot to your child. Replace the "You" with specific labels that they identify with. Give them the space to voice their perception of the self, how they feel about being the gender they identify with, or the orientation they tend to lean toward. Your child will be grateful that you are not just open to understanding them, but proactive in making the journey of self-discovery a tad bit easier for them.
9. Is there anything you want to ask me or know?
Trust: Letting them know you are available to answer their questions builds trust. Telling them you are open to hearing from them about anything they want to share makes it easier for them to be honest. And, this questions makes all other conversations easier.
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