Johnson: How to have difficult conversations with your kids

Carol Johnson
Valley Voices

Summertime freedom offers adolescents scenarios in which experimentation, pushing boundaries and risk-taking flourishes. Summertime is also a great time for parents and caregivers to connect with your kids.

Sometimes the chats flow easily, and sometimes, especially the older your kids are, these chats can be very difficult and awkward. As your child’s closest ally, take advantage of the last few remaining summer weeks and do not shy away from the tough talks.

By having these challenging conversations, your relationship with your child will grow and you will be seen as a trusted resource. Prevention science has found that if you have conversations with your kids about these issues three to four years ahead of time, unwanted behaviors are less likely to occur. It’s not too early to start when your child is as young as 9 years old.  Your goal is that they will be comfortable coming to you with anything, anytime, at any age.

What exactly is a tough conversation? I define it as a talk that centers around difficult topics facing youth in three main subject areas: substance use, sexual consent and behavioral health issues. Oftentimes, these issues are intertwined.

I challenge you to find out what space your adolescent lives in, with respect to these areas. Is it healthy or is it ripe with risk-taking that could lead to larger problems down the road? Now is the time to find out.

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Before starting, however, make sure you are both in a good frame of mind and in a safe space. What I mean by that is consider starting the talk in the car during a long drive, or perhaps after you have finished dinner and the dishes are done. Don’t start the conversation if either you or your child are stressed or in a hurry to be somewhere else. Lastly, limit potential distractions by putting all electronic devices away.

You are probably wondering what to say once you have figured out where and when to have a talk. Several of my favorite online resources to help jumpstart this process are:

  • For substance use, visit They have brilliantly divided their “talk with your kids” section into age categories, knowing that a preteen is exposed to different risk-taking scenarios than a 17-year old. The categories are broken down into ages 9-13, 14-17 and 18-21 and cover alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and vaping. They also provide role-playing and specific scenarios that a parent may experience so that you have ideas about how to respond.  
  • For healthy relationship and sexual consent conversations, I encourage you to visit This site is geared toward youth, yet there are a few sections for parents. Utilize this site as a springboard from which to educate yourself on this topic so you have data to back up your conversation with your child. Our county’s court system is currently experiencing more than the normal number of juvenile non-consent cases, so do not hesitate on this one.  Their one-minute video, “How To Start The Relationship Talk,” on the Resources for Parents and Educators page is short, sweet and to the point. Break The Cycle discusses relationships using three categories: healthy, unhealthy and abusive. To me, that is a perfect place to start. Teaching your child the differences between those three types of relationships will set them up for success.
  • For behavioral health issues, I suggest two online resources that I refer to often. The first is the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at The second is the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). The Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family NAMI webpage is a great start in educating yourself and provides tips for how to approach this incredibly delicate subject. The Clay Center’s site, on the other hand, offers a potpourri of information that may require some searching to find exactly what you are looking for, but I suggest starting with the You and Your Family section.

Lastly, there are several local non-profit organizations that you can also turn to for help:

  • Eagle River Youth Coalition: Eat Chat Parent (free monthly evening community conversations providing positive behavioral health tips for families and non-biological caregivers), The Valley’s Voice (extra-curricular youth leadership and volunteer opportunities), Botvin Life Skills (in-school prevention program), safe driving and sober initiatives
  • Bright Future Foundation: Youth Advocacy (in-school education)
  • Eagle County School District & The Hope Center: A partnership offering school-based mental health counseling services
  • Red Ribbon Project: Youth skills building (in-school education)
  • SpeakUpReachOut: Suicide Prevention (in-school and community education)

I hope this information inspires you to educate yourself and have at least one tough chat with your adolescent prior to the start of the school year. You got this.

Carol Johnson is the Community Education Manager at the Eagle River Youth Coalition and the Program Manager of the Eat Chat Parent behavioral health free education series, presented by Vail Health. Carol also serves as the chair of the Community Outreach Board for Eagle County Communities That Care.  Save the Date for the first Eat Chat Parent on September 10 and 11 by  Dr. Paul Jenkins PhD, “Practicing Positive Parenting.” The event will discuss how to incorporate positivity and emotional intelligence strategies into your parenting style. Visit to learn more or email

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