Talking to Children about Difficult Things

28 April 2021

Even the most experienced practitioners can feel daunted when faced with the task of talking to children and young people about difficult and painful issues. 'Talking to Children about Difficult Things' is a short course which examines the psychological processes and complex dynamics at work below the surface, in order to support effective communication in challenging circumstances.

We asked course lead Adi Steiner to tell us more – scroll down to read a summary of our conversation and watch a video recording.


Suitable for all practitioners who work with children and young people in difficult contexts, 'Talking to Children about Difficult Things' seeks to identify appropriate and helpful ways to communicate with children and young people – particularly, explains course lead Adi Steiner, those who “have had difficult, possibly traumatic, experiences in their upbringing”.

For Adi, there are a number of key elements to understanding communication with children and young people. As well as considering where they are on “the spectrum of their own development”, and thinking about “their unique character and experiences”, there are also the more general structures and defence mechanisms of the human mind which need to be taken into account.

Adi explains that it’s also vitally important to acknowledge the other side of the coin, when the barriers to communication come from the practitioners themselves: “If I don’t feel comfortable with my own skills, if I feel worried about what I’m about to hear, if I have, for whatever reason, difficulty in thinking about painful material, then that might stop me, as well, from communicating, and so it’s a two-way process”, she explains.

Balancing theory with “practical, easily-implemented tools”, the course aims to provide a much-needed “thinking space”, in which to discuss and reflect on professional experiences. In fact, it’s structured over three half-days, which are spread out to allow participants to go away and try out some of the ideas outlined in the course, before coming back together to reflect on the efficacy and impact of these approaches in small groups.

Perhaps now, more than ever, the pressure’s on to build these communication skills: “With Covid-19, we have seen an incredibly painful rise in the need to think about the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people for multiple, complex reasons”, explains Adi. And we need to not only help them to communicate about their experiences, but also to acquire the tools to manage their own levels of stress and anxiety, making use of the “the safe, positive adults” around them.

Stress Bucket

Adi gives an example from the course – a quick tool which can be used to frame communication with children and young people, often referred to as the “stress bucket”. In essence, this tool is about applying a narrative to children’s mental and emotional states: “We look at a picture of a bucket, with some clouds on the top, and some taps, and the idea is to help yourself, and the child you’re working with, understand: What are the stresses in their lives?” Negative experiences (rain clouds) can raise stress levels (level of water in the bucket), and stress levels can be reduced through certain things under our control (the tap) – preventing anxiety from escalating and becoming unmanageable. Adi explains that tools of this kind are readily available online, and cites a worksheet from Mental Health UK, which can be downloaded for free.

What sets this course apart, however, is where discussion goes after that: “We are also interested in what creates the bucket; what makes my bucket much bigger, and able to contain a lot more stresses than yours; and, most importantly, what do you do with that child that has had such difficult experiences that they’re not even willing to draw the bucket with you, let alone talk about the stresses or the coping mechanisms that can be useful for them?”


Feeling inspired to join Adi on this course?

Talking to Children About Difficult Things‘Talking to Children about Difficult Things’ supports practitioners in talking with children and young people about challenging and painful issues – incorporating psychological and developmental perspectives, and delivering practical advice and tools.

Previous participants have included mentors and youth workers, residential workers, qualified social workers, SENCOs, teachers, paediatricians, and practitioners from a range of charities.


Find out more and apply to join our next cohort.

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