There are some conversations all parents dread. What father hasn't cringed while explaining the birds and the bees to a curious eight-year-old? And how do you break the news that there may not actually be a Goldfish Heaven; or that the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas aren't quite as real as you'd made out?
But those tricky chats can be a lot more serious, like explaining why some people get Aids, why millions live in poverty, how global warming might change our planet, or why the papers are full of screaming headlines about terrorism.
Of course, we all want to protect our kids from as much bad news as possible, and make sure the information they get is age-appropriate. But rolling 24-hour TV news, the internet and social media – let alone the things they hear from friends at school – makes it increasingly difficult to control the things our children see and hear.
So how best to talk to them about things that might scare or upset them?
Use common sense
We wouldn't let our six-year-old watch a violent horror movie, so why would we watch news stories about terrorist bombings or natural disasters with them in the room? When they're very young, we need to think carefully about what kids see, hear and read. According to parenting coach Sue Atkins (www.positive-parents.com), it comes down to common sense.
'Just because we have news on TV all the time, it doesn't mean kids have to watch it. Depending on the age of your child, you need to protect them – that's your job. So when they're five or six they don't need to hear gory details that will keep them up all night,' she says.
News can be a teaching tool
As parents, we all want our kids to be healthy. At some point, that means talking to them about drugs: both the illegal ones like cannabis and ecstasy, and legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. One of the best ways to open up that discussion is to use stories about the latest intoxicated celebrity.
'When kids see pictures of Amy Winehouse or Britney looking worse for wear, it's a great way to start conversations about drugs and alcohol,' says Atkins. 'Don't be frightened to talk about it, because that's how you pass on your values to kids. Try to be open, because that will demystify things like drugs and make sure they're not getting muddled, second-hand information from friends.'
How to talk about sex
This might fill dads across the land with terror, but it doesn't need to be embarrassing. Kids have an intense curiosity about everything, including the ways our bodies function and what various bits of them are for. Giving them simple, clear, age-appropriate information about sex is just another part of their education.
'If you're confident and relaxed about sex, your kids will be too – but if you're embarrassed, they will pick that up,' says Atkins. 'If you're not comfortable talking about it, get someone who is – like an aunt, cousin or friend – to discuss it with them.'
And this is another area where kids are far better hearing it from you than some of the weird and wonderful things their friends will tell them.
Talking about divorce
One of the hardest things to explain is when your relationship is struggling, whether you're going through an all-too-obvious rough patch or are considering separation. The best way to handle it is by being honest, but not telling them every little detail, particularly if those details will needlessly upset them.
'If you're having relationship problems, honesty is the best policy – but on a need-to-know basis,' advises Atkins. 'It's also a really good idea to think hard about what you want to say. Make a list of the key assurances you can give your kids – the things you can guarantee, whatever changes might be happening.'
Planning this conversation will help you give your kids a clear message and lower the emotional temperature, however upset you may be.
Overall, whether it's talking about sex, drugs or scary news events, parents have a key role to play in educating their kids.
After all, who better to teach them about life than the people they trust the most?
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