Having a trusted adult around to listen and offer perspective can make a world of difference.

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 It’s safe to say that most children, at some point or another, find themselves in a situation that makes them afraid or uncomfortable, or they simply don’t understand. Having an adult around to help guide them through it can make all the difference.

Sometimes, that adult is a family member, but that’s not the only option. Family friends, neighbors, teachers and organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound can step in when needed.

Nineteen-year-old Brandon first met his Big Brother nine years ago, in a resource room at Lake Hills Elementary School. “I was kind of lost until I met Emilio,” Brandon says. “I actually have someone to look up to now.”

Brandon was bullied in elementary school because he was different: he didn’t like sports or find girls attractive. Emilio has been a safe person for him to talk to and help him learn to accept himself. “I was scared to tell Emilio I was gay,” Brandon says. “But when I did he accepted it and that made me happy.”

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Emilio, a 41-year-old engineer at Microsoft, always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up and now he’s helping Brandon to fulfill his dreams of being a professional dancer, singer and actor. Brandon has also helped Emilio to grow. Last year, he asked his Big Brother to help him make a YouTube channel and they figured out together how to do just that.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to be a cameraman,” Emilio says. “Also, as an engineer I tend to be logic-oriented and this has forced me to be more creative.”

The give-and-take of a developing a relationship with a young person can be rewarding to both people involved. “The fact that Brandon was willing to talk about being gay made me feel really good as a Big Brother,” Emilio says. “This is what this relationship is all about, giving kids the opportunity to express themselves however they want to express themselves – whether that’s with words, or music and dance. My job is to be there and be supportive.”

When it comes to talking about tough topics, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is an expert at encouraging kids to open up and getting them the help they need.

Each year, the nonprofit organization that matches an adult mentor with a child serves over 2,100 mentors and youth. “We provide services to the child and at least one parent,” says Louis Garcia, President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. “We offer a proactive three-way coaching program between the parent, mentor and trained professional staff that includes monthly check-ins, and ongoing coaching and training.”

A big part of that program is coaching parents and mentors how to talk with kids about issues including gender identity, bullying, racism, divorce, domestic violence and homelessness. “Mentors sometimes have an advantage over parents because kids are more willing to open up with them,” says Katey Sias, Program Manager, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. “Sometimes, they just want someone to listen. They don’t want to risk their parents’ or relatives’ negative reactions.”

5 tips for talking with kids

Here are five time-tested tips for talking with kids about tough topics – whether you’re a parent, a mentor or a teacher:

  1. Find out what the child knows already.When difficult questions come up, simply ask your child “What have you heard?” This allows you to know where the conversation is starting from and why the question is being asked.
  2. Affirm the child for asking questions. Don’t make a child feel ashamed or embarrassed for asking questions. Encourage open, proactive dialogue.
  3. Keep the conversation simple and age appropriate.A simple sentence may be enough, or maybe a longer conversation is warranted to address an underlying fear or concern.
  4. Ask the child how they feel about a situation. Validate their feelings. Be patient as a young person processes in their own time.
  5. Follow up on the conversation again later.Don’t be afraid to check in and let kids know that you heard them. Kids will often think about a tough situation for a while and may have more concerns or questions again later. This is normal.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is a donor- and volunteer-supported youth mentoring organization, serving the local community for over 60 years. With 800 youth on the wait list, the agency offers a variety of program options that fit volunteer availability.