Think your kids are too young to understand your grown-up conversations? Think again.
"In my practice, parents are constantly shocked by what kids have overheard," says Brad Sachs, PhD, a family psychologist in Columbia, MD and author of The Good Enough Child and The Good Enough Teen.
"But as soon as children can talk, they're listening to what you say," he says.
Kids can be upset and confused by overheard adult conversations. But they may not tell you what they heard -- and you won't even know they're worried.
Before your kid repeats something mortifying in front of your mother-in-law -- or worse -- it's time to start speaking more carefully. Talking Around the Kids: 6 Things to Avoid
What shouldn't you discuss when little ears could hear?
Fraught topics: Be careful talking with your spouse about big issues -- like financial problems or a family crisis. Your kids are listening. Kids are magnetically drawn toward arguments and emotional discussions, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential. However, they may not really understand what's going on. Their interpretations may be scarier than what's actually happening.
What to do instead: "If something big is going on in your household, trying to hide it from your kids won't work," says Kennedy-Moore. "Give them the basic facts." The most important detail is how these changes will affect your child.
Trash talk: Are you always criticizing about your child's teacher, your mother, or your ex-husband?
What to do instead: Stop. You're modeling bad behavior for your kids. You may also say something mean about a person your kids care about -- and that can be deeply unsettling for them.
Criticism of your kids: Do you tend to vent about the frustrations of parenthood on the phone? Be careful. "It can be really hurtful if your kids overhear you criticizing them or talking about some mistake they made," says Kennedy-Moore. "They're likely to feel ashamed and then angry."
What you should do instead: Don't get in the habit of complaining about your kids. "Be discreet about your kids' indiscretions," says Kennedy-Moore. Try not to repeat them to others.
Complaining: Adults tend to complain a lot -- especially about their jobs. What's the problem? You're modeling a bad attitude that your kids could apply to school -- or later in life when they have jobs.
What you should do instead: Talk about the positive aspects of your work. "If you worked on an interesting project recently, make sure to mention that," says Kennedy-Moore.
Upsetting world events: "For kids, the world is a small place," says Kennedy-Moore. "They may overhear you talking about the news and assume that burglars are going to be coming to their house, or a tsunami may hit their town."
What you should do instead: You shouldn't shield your kid completely from world events. Just help them put the news in context and reassure them, Kennedy-Moore says.
Swearing: Many adults swear in front of their kids on occasion. Don't overreact when your kids imitate you -- that will just make the words more exciting.
What you should do instead: Try hard not to swear in front of your kids -- and never swear at them, says Kennedy-Moore. If you can't seem to control your profane outbursts, Kennedy-Moore has a suggestion. "Tell your kids to collect a quarter from you every time you swear," she tells WebMD. "They'll like doing that a lot."
Even if you're careful, your kids will wind up overhearing things that they shouldn't. Here are tips on how to handle that when it happens -- as well as suggestions for making it less likely.
Ask what they heard: If you suspect your kids have overheard something, ask them. Tell them that they won't get in trouble if they tell the truth. They probably know that eavesdropping is wrong, so they may not want to reveal it.
Reassure them: Help your kids put what they heard in perspective. If they're upset about an argument you had with your spouse, explain that adults sometimes disagree but that you'll work it out -- and that arguments do not mean you're getting a divorce.
Be proactive: Don't think you can hide something big from your kids -- like losing a job or the illness of a close relative. "Trying to keep kids in the dark about things like that just doesn't work," says Sachs. Instead, level with them in an age-appropriate and reassuring way. You'll spare them a lot of confusion and anxiety later.
Get privacy when you need it: Have something sensitive you need to discuss? Do it somewhere else. Go for a walk. Close the bedroom door for a few minutes. Don't try to whisper or talk in code and hope your kids won't notice.
Allow selective eavesdropping: There is one real benefit to a child's tendency to listen in.
"One of the best ways to praise the child is indirectly," says Kennedy-Moore. "If your child overhears you talking to grandma about how hard she is working in math class, that can really boost the child's self-esteem." Kids are more likely to believe your praise when you're not saying it to them.