As parents, we feel confident helping our child when he or she is physically hurt or not feeling well. And we can turn to a doctor or medical professional for help when we need more answers. But what do we do if our child is having emotional difficulties?
It can be hard to talk to your child about their emotions and how they are feeling. You hope you’re doing the right thing, but you may struggle expressing your own emotions and needs. Or you may wonder, “are they too young for this?” or “am I doing more harm than good?” The truth is, it’s going to be hard but it’s worth it. Our children need help learning to express their emotions in a safe way.
Children of all ages have mental wellbeing needs. Helping your child learn the skills to talk about how they feel can begin at any age. While it is best to start when they are young, it’s never too late to practice these four skills:
1. Help your child name his or her feelings and thoughts
This can be done by adding what is called a feelings vocabulary. A simple formula for a feelings vocabulary is: “I feel _____ (feeling) because ______.” For example, you can teach your child to say, “I feel worried because,” or “I feel happy because.”
Using feelings words in conversations with your child or with other adults is a good way to model this.
2. Have open-ended conversations
Every parent at one time or another has been met with the “it’s fine” response from their child. Open-ended questions, or questions that give children a chance to help with family decisions, work better to help children open up rather than questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. You can start by asking any of the following questions that elicit responses more than just “it’s fine” or “I’m fine”:
- Who did you sit with at lunch?
- What did you play during recess?
- Why do you think ___ happened?
- What kind of activities would help us feel closer as a family?
- What types of rules should we have about our phones?
- What kind of person do you want to date?
Make talking a regular practice. Ask questions at dinner or when you’re driving your child somewhere. Whenever possible, let your child lead the conversation. When children bring up their feelings, remember it is okay to sit in the quiet as they navigate their feelings. You are not required to fix their feelings; sometimes your child just needs to be heard and know you care. Ask your child if they want your help coming up with a solution or to just listen. You can validate them and let them know it’s okay to be upset, confused, or mad.
3. Build a routine
Children thrive when they have consistency and predictability in their schedule. Routine reduces worry and builds confidence in the adults in their life, as well as their own lives. Continue to set routines. Have set schedules for bedtime, meals, school, chores, family time, extracurricular activities, and time with friends as much as possible.
4. Foster connection with a community
Encourage creativity and help your child stay connected to family, friends, and your community or neighborhood. Things like game nights, hobbies, taking breaks from watching the news or using social media, and getting outside can help you and your child feel more connected.
We know parenting can be difficult. As a parent, continue to take care of yourself. When you do this, you can be the best parent for your child, both by setting an example for them, and by avoiding burnout.
Ask for help if you are concerned about your child. Speak to their school counselor, pediatrician, or a mental health therapist, including local mental health authorities. If you or your child are in crisis, contact the crisis line at 800.273.TALK (8255).
Uplift Families: https://www.upliftfamilies.org/
SAFE UT: https://safeut.org
Leah Colburn, CMHC
Leah is a program administrator for Children's Behavioral Health Services at the Utah Division of Substance Use and Mental Health. Leah is a clinical mental health therapist who has been working with youth and families for nearly 20 years. She has worked in a number of mental health settings across Utah.