How to start a difficult conversation

How to start a difficult conversation

Saturday, 30 October 2021

If a young person in your life seems to be having a tough time, trust your instinct something isn’t right.

There are plenty of signs to look out for that are good to know. If you want to start a difficult conversation but don’t know where to begin, you are not alone.

Many young people have missed out on a number of opportunities and milestones since the pandemic started. And there can be no question this can impact on everyone’s mood in the family unit.

When a young person is feeling down, stressed out or experiencing anxiety, they may become closed off or defensive. They can find it hard to talk about what is going on. In response to the pandemic and restrictions, they may not know or understand emotions they’re experiencing.

Some things can be challenging to communicate. However, whether able to open up or not, a young person will likely appreciate being offered the opportunity to talk. They will benefit from knowing someone is there to support them when they are ready to accept help.

Choose your time to start a conversation

Finding the right time is important to consider. You need an adequate amount of time available so neither of you feels pressure to reach a quick conclusion. It’s wise to choose a time when you are both free without something to rush off to.

The young person may have a deadline for homework or is distracted by a football game. In this case, it is unlikely they will want to talk. Remember, your priorities may not be the same.

A convenient time to talk may crop up naturally when you are both relaxed and doing something together. However, it may not be that easy to start a tough conversation.

You might have to deliberately make the time. Don’t try to be a mind reader on this. Let the young person know you’d like to spend some time with them and ask when suits them.

A young man chatting with an older man, who is sitting against the wall

Tell them what you’ve noticed

Tell them you’ve noticed they seem to be feeling sad, worried, tense, angry. Make sure they know this is not a criticism.

Choose your place

Think about where you would both be most comfortable. Right now, you may be feeling a bit cramped and on top of each other after all the lockdowns. The household may be busy too with other children vying for attention, so take some time away.

Plan to go for a walk together, or grab a snack somewhere – if that’s possible. Going for a drive can be a good option, as the young person may feel less ‘on the spot’ if they are alongside you rather than face-to-face.

If you go out of the house, consider the privacy of your young person. If there’s a chance they might get upset in a public space it could make things uncomfortable.

How to start the conversation

There is no magic trick for how to do this. How forthcoming a young person is can depend on the approach you take and how communicative they are in general. A simple ‘how are you doing at the moment?’ may be enough to get the ball rolling.

However, you might also be met with a terse ‘fine’, which can close things down straight away. If a generic question doesn’t help get to the point, be more specific. Let the young person know you’re concerned about them.

Tell them you’ve noticed they seem to be feeling sad, worried, tense, angry. Make sure they know this is not a criticism.

Ask them if they want to talk about what is going on in their life. It can be hurtful if a young person says they don’t want to discuss something with you. But try not to take it personally.

If that’s the case, ask if there is anyone  else  they would feel more comfortable discussing things with. The important thing is that they know it’s OK to talk.

Help them find their own way

Our job is to help a young person find their own way, rather than beat the path for them

A young woman mixes paint in the foreground while another woman paints in the background

Think about your response

If a young person does open up, stay calm and remain non-judgemental, no matter what you hear. You may have an opinion on the situation, but don’t need to communicate it straight away. Give the young person plenty of time to say what they need.

You may see a clear solution or way forward, but try not to rush in with feedback. Our job is to help a young person find their own way, rather than beat the path for them. In the current climate, it’s highly likely that we won’t have all the answers anyway.

Of course, if a young person asks for your opinion or ideas they can be shared. Be prepared for them to be rejected though. It can be tough to see a young person making decisions you would question. But they learn through making mistakes, just as we all did.

When a young person shares something distressing, our natural reaction can be to provide reassurance that things will be OK. Take a step back and acknowledge how tough things are.

Let the young person know you understand and are there to support them. In reality, none of us can guarantee things will always work out. But we can assure them we will always be available during a tough time.

Find out what they need right now

Don’t be afraid to ask a young person what they need from you. You can ask something like, “What can I do to support you?”

Often, just knowing you are there to listen and understand will be enough. Together if you identify they need further support, guide them to options for  over 18s  and  under 18s.

Be honest about what you can and can’t do. You may need to talk to somebody else about what is going on. Particularly if you are worried they are at risk of harm.

Don’t agree to keep something confidential if you can’t stick to this. If  necessary,  let the young person know why you need to share what they have told you. Then also who you are going to share it with and what you are going to say.

Follow up the conversation

Once a young person has shared something with you, check back in with them about how things are. However, don’t let it be the only focus of your relationship. Discuss the things you normally would.

It’s important that a young person knows you are there if they need to talk. Though they won’t appreciate you hovering over them continuously.

Pay attention to your own needs too. Supporting a young person through a tough time can feel draining, and we can only do it if we take care of ourselves.

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