Student perspectives on dealing with difficult conversations

Dealing with death and personal loss

Author 1: Shamila , Birmingham City University

I had to deal with the loss of my father 2 weeks before my GCSES and then dealing with it throughout my A levels. Often I found myself talking about him as though he was alive to avoid the “I’m sorry” and the awkward conversations.  Plus, I didn’t want to come across as attention seeking. I found it difficult to talk about how I was dealing with it at home in fact I didn’t want to as I was the eldest child and felt it was my duty to keep everyone together.  This led to many problems during my A’ levels and I’d say that it wasn’t a healthy approach but I did have an adult to talk to at one point and I think what made me go to them more than anything else was that they were approachable. They made the situation lighter and I felt I could trust them. We had built that relationship and they were my “go to” for a couple of months and I think that is what helped the most. I felt they understood me, they made me feel better about myself. They reminded me of what I was and not who I thought I was. Later I created an Instagram page under an anonymous user to reach out to people and let them know they were not alone as most often young people feel they are going through something alone.

When I got that call from Mama at 6am in the morning something didn’t seem right, like something was strangling her neck tight. Can you come to the hospital and bring the little ones too, they’ll want to see their baba too. Arrived at the hospital and there you were laughing and smiling even on your last day. You looked at me gave me a thumbs then you coughed up blood in a cup. I couldn’t take it anymore; I walked out the ward with tears streaming down my face. I started to hate the place and then mama called me in. Thought you were unconscious but the news I heard was next was monstrous. Death had lingered through our home taking with it all our peace. Days went by without any sleep. I didn’t know what to do so I went to school, tried acting normal on the same day. Everything felt so empty, reasons to laugh there were plenty but faking smiles got us feeling more weep. Three years full of grief, mama lost her other half and her laugh. I found it hard to talk. The days I got weak my friends didn’t understand me: “she’ll be okay strong she’s always been.” But the strength was all a façade I needed someone too. Baba I hope one day you’ll look down and be proud of me because without you nothing feels okay. (Instagram post)

So what exactly is a difficult conversation? I think the first most important thing to do is to define what a difficult conversation is. A difficult conversation can range from delivering unpleasant news, to discussing a delicate subject or talking about something that needs changing or has gone wrong. This can range from sexual assault, FGM, bereavement and terrorism. In fact it isn’t limited to just those. In my opinion, I don’t think there is a concise definition and there shouldn’t be. Human emotion shouldn’t be limited to boundaries but what is definite is these conversations or just thinking about them can give us anxiety and distract them us from other important considerations that require our attention, ultimately affecting our mental health.

I think we should also touch upon “young people” as they are probably the most overlooked in society. But this reminds me of what my history teacher once said that “young people should not be taken lightly.” And “they are the most opinionated demographic group so write that paper and state your political view.”

Now that we’ve touched upon both young people and what a difficult conversation is, let’s discuss how to effectively involve young people in difficult conversations. I personally don’t think there should be a set approach as everybody is different but I do think there is are a coherent set of guidelines that should be considered when trying to engage with a young person.

Here’s my suggestions:

  1. Keep the question factual and open

The most important thing that should be taken to account is the topic of the conversation is most likely not a fact and just an opinion, your opinion is based on your experience towards the topic and theirs based on theirs. There is no need to be right or wrong as this will most likely lead to conflict, be considerate and remember this is something they feel very deeply about, let them talk.

  1. Listen, so young people can open up

It’s also important to actually listen, young people most often find it hard to talk about something that is affecting them, maybe they haven’t really opened up to anyone and you may be the first. Don’t make this a bad experience for them, don’t make it all about you. If you’re waiting to respond to what they are saying chances are you aren’t actually listening, save the thought and if it’s important it’ll come back to you.  Be respectful, this is a meaningful topic for them and how you react with it will set the outcome after the conversation.  Don’t push too much as this may lead to them avoiding the conversation altogether.

  1. Build trust and common ground

I find young people engage in conversations much more effectively when they trust the individual. Build the relationship with them, tell them of your experiences too if it is convenient in the topic but don’t make it entirely about you, remember this conversation is more for them than you, or perhaps you may find you are both benefitting from it.  The matter of fact is when they trust you they will come speak to you themselves. Show them you understand where they are coming from and find some common ground the young person wants to see the other person understands and is listening.

  1. Be welcoming and genuine.

Developing a good relationship will be the most effective way to get the individual to engage with the conversation, don’t give off any judgemental environment whether that is physical or verbal, let the person lead the conversation, prompt but don’t ask leading questions.


Check: Safeguarding against violent extremism course for staff & students


“We Need to Talk.”
Author 2: Kathryn Monckton, Birmingham City UniversitY

Take yourself back to the last time someone said to you, “we need to talk”. It may have been when you were 6 years old. Maybe you were 17. It could even have been last week. Either way, I can almost guarantee that the initial emotion that you felt was panic. You probably thought of everything you had ever done wrong in your entire life and emotionally disconnected with the conversation out of fear… And then they just wanted to know what you wanted for tea.

The big question is; why do we react in such a negative way and disengage with such a neutral statement?

We live in a society where we are taught from a very young age that adults have an authoritive hold over us, meaning that children instinctively think they are in trouble if adults speak to them in a tone that is even slightly different than normal. Because of this, children find it hard to trust us and engage with what we are saying when it comes to sensitive and rarely talked about topics such as rape, abuse or neglect, as we tend to lower our tone to sound more serious.


So how do we change this?


Many psychology academics such as Richard Rose (2012), Dan Hughes (2012) and Betsy de Thierry (2017) are opening the door to a new trauma informed approach to child interaction. This involves communicating while keeping in mind adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that young people (and adults alike) may have endured – with 47% of individuals reporting at least one ACE (Public Health England 2018; Bellis 2014) – while also actively avoiding situations that may re-traumatise the individual. The child’s surroundings may mean that they are being re-traumatised daily, however this reiterates the importance for trauma informed interaction. By having at least one person in their life who makes an effort to build attachments, provide consistency, trust and make them feel safe in conversations, the child will almost definitely open up and confide in them. Whether the child has experienced what it is you are talking about (rape, abuse, neglect ect.) or not; whether you’ve known them since birth, or just a day; it is still important to maintain a trauma informed approach when communicating with them.

Here a a few simple ways you can do this.

  1. Using activities

Using visual imagines and activities while having difficult conversations with children can be beneficial to both you and the child (Parkinson, 1987; O’Brien and Loudon, 1985), whether the activities are aimed at younger children or older teenagers. Providing a fun and relaxed atmosphere will prevent the child from feeling panicked or that they are in trouble as the tone will be light. This will enable them to build attachments with you through play which will naturally translate into trust, while also allowing them to lose themselves in the activity at hand if they feel that the conversation is getting stressful for them. This may happen often for children and young people with ACEs. Equally, activities and play provides a sensory distraction for the child, giving them a soothing output if they feel themselves getting stressed or anxious at any point.

 2. Be soft

An important thing to remember when interacting with children regarding difficult conversations, is to be consistently soft in your facial features and your tone of voice. By doing this you’ll allow the child to feel that you are trustworthy, giving them more of a reason to open up to you about the sensitive topic, despite the discomfort they may have talking about it. Providing soft facial expressions will also make you appear interested in what they have to say, making the child feel that their opinion is valued and appreciated, allowing them to feel comfortable in speaking to you, while also letting the child feel safe and secure in the conversation; that you are not going to judge them for what they have to say.

3. Let them speak

The most important thing to do to make a child feel that what they have to say is valued, is to give them time to translate what they are thinking into words, as young children especially may not know what their opinion is on a sensitive subject. The best way to kick-start the process of getting them to think is by asking them open ended questions such as, “what do you think about this”, “how do you think it would make someone feel if…”, or “why do you think people do this?”. Asking simple yes or no questions will only cause the child to answer with what they think you want to hear (especially if they have ACEs). Patience is vital as it may take some encouragement for the child to say what they’re really thinking, which is why its so important to build attachments with the child beforehand.

These tips to help engage a child in difficult conversations are simple and can be done with virtually none, or very little, planning prior to the conversation. By merely opening yourself up to the trauma informed approach you are able to make the child feel as though they can trust you and therefore tell you what they really think. Just by creating an attachment and using the above tips with that child, you are creating equality between them and yourself. This eliminates the authoritive relationship between adult and child that has been taught throughout society, and introduces feelings of relaxation and trust, letting the child allow themselves to fully engage in the conversation, where they may otherwise hold back.



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9/11: The Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington on 11th September 2001, which triggered President George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7/7: The co-ordinated bomb attacks on London by four young British men in the name of Al Qaeda, on 7th July 2005, which killed 52 people.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, which committed the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State (Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL): Terrorist group formed after the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. It is the most prominent recruiter of Westerners to its mission to establish its own state.

CONTEST & the ‘4 Ps’: The British Government’s Counter Terrorism strategy initiated in 2006, revised in 2011, consisting of 4 strands: Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Pursue.

Prevent: Aiming to stop (prevent) individuals from supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists.