Talking About Tough Topics

The best way to talk to your curious preschooler about sensitive topics -- like death, divorce, and sex -- is to keep it short, simple, and on her level. Check out how our experts would answer three common questions.

Where Do Babies Come From?

What to say: "A special place in Mommy's tummy called the womb."

    How to talk about it: "You should only answer the question you're asked," says Sal Severe, PhD, a Parents advisor and author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! "Kids this age probably won't even think to inquire how the baby got there." And giving your preschooler a premature "sex talk" will most likely confuse and disturb her.

    Wait to see whether your child has a follow-up question before you elaborate. Chances are she'll be satisfied with the simple response for now. But if she wants to know how the pregnancy happens, make sure you keep it short and sweet: "When a mommy and daddy decide to have a baby, his cells and her cells come together to create one."

    Continue to give her more pieces of information as she asks for it. And don't be afraid to use the correct terminology. "Children as young as 4 should know words like vagina and penis," says Mary Borowka, a child psychotherapist in Chappaqua, New York. Introducing these words to her vocabulary now will make it less awkward -- for the both of you -- to talk about sex as she gets older.

      What Happens When Someone Dies?

      What to say: "Usually a person's body gets old and stops working, and it can't be fixed. But the part of him that we love goes to heaven [lives on in our hearts]."

        How to talk about it: Your answer to this question largely depends on your religious beliefs. But most people prefer to tell their kids that the spirit of a loved one will always be with them, whether it's in heaven or in their thoughts and memories. In either case, when your child loses a relative or pet, it's a good time to introduce him to some of your own values and beliefs, suggests Borowka.

        While losing a grandparent or other relative usually sets off questions about death, your preschooler might bring up the topic after seeing a dead animal in the street or watching a movie with a death scene, like The Lion King. He'll probably want to know more out of curiosity than fear for your safety or his, but use this as an opportunity to reassure him that people usually don't die until they're old and that you'll be in his life for a long time to come.

        Preschoolers are also very literal and need concrete explanations, says Dr. Severe. Euphemisms like "Grandpa passed away" or "Your turtle went to sleep" will probably just confuse and scare him -- and the last thing you want is a kid who's afraid to go to bed because he thinks he might not wake up again.

        Above all, be patient. Since a 4- or 5-year-old will have a hard time understanding the concept of forever, he may ask several times why Grandpa doesn't come to visit anymore. Explain it to him again, or consider taking him to the cemetery to see where Grandpa's buried.

          Why Doesn't Henry's Dad Live with Him?

          What to say: "Sometimes, parents don't get along and decide it's better for everyone if they live in separate houses. But they both still love him and will always be his mom and dad."

            How to talk about it: Preschoolers are starting to compare their families with those of others, and with the divorce rate what it is, it's likely your child has at least one friend or classmate whose parents have split up. "You should answer your child honestly, but don't take sides or give specifics on why the marriage fell apart," says Borowka.

            And make sure you know what your child is really asking. "A lot of the time, what kids actually mean to say is, 'Is this going to happen to me?'" says M. Gary Neuman, a Parents advisor and author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Sit down with your child and let her know that you and your spouse might fight sometimes, but you still love each other and like living together.

            If you're divorced and your child continues to ask why, she might just need to be reassured again that you're still a family and that the split wasn't her fault (kids often blame themselves). "Remind her that everyone is doing fine, that Mommy and Daddy still love her, and that it's okay for her to love both of you," says Dr. Severe.

              Tales That Teach

              Still not sure how to talk to your preschooler about sensitive subjects? Try reading her one of these helpful children's books.

                It's Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends by Robie H. Harris

                This informative book covers everything from why girls and boys have different body parts to how a baby is born. Also, check out Peter Mayle's Where Did I Come From?
                $17, bn.com and $10, bn.com

                  What's Heaven? by Maria Shriver

                  The loss of her great-grandmother leaves a young girl with lots of questions, which her mother thoughtfully answers one by one.
                  $15, bn.com

                    Two Homes by Claire Masurel

                    In this sweet, simple tale, Alex discovers all the positive things that come from living in different places with his mom and dad.
                    $7, bn.com

                    Chat Cheat Sheet

                    Be prepared. Work out with your spouse how you plan to respond to difficult questions ahead of time. Get advice from other parents too.

                    Look for teachable moments. Beat your child to the punch, and ask her whether she knows why her aunt's belly is getting bigger or understands what happened to her pet goldfish. But don't push her into a conversation if she doesn't seem interested.

                    Don't be dramatic. Answer your child in the same manner you would if he asked you about dinner, suggests child psychotherapist Mary Borowka. If you make a big deal out of a subject, he'll fixate on it even more.

                    Never lie. It's okay if you withhold details because you think your child is too young. But it's important to be truthful. If you aren't, your child will find out sooner or later and she may lose trust in you.

                      Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.