The other day my typically cheerful son came home without a smile, shoulders slumped over, his eyes wouldn’t meet mine. Immediately my mommy heart sunk knowing that something BIG must be going on, and he was keeping it all inside. My mind quickly switched into emergency mode as I thought of hundreds of ways to help my child to open up and talk about his feelings so we could get to the bottom of it together.
“Did someone say something to you today?”
“You’re clearly upset, what happened?”
After asking several questions like this, his responses became more and more vague. Words like “I don’t know” or “nothing” were all I could get out of him. I started to panic, wondering if this was the beginning of the end, where he would start acting like a teen and keep his feelings inside.
NO! I didn’t want to give up that easily. I spent the rest of the day thinking, worrying, and wondering about ways to help him talk openly and share those concerns with me.
After managing the daily chaos, wracking my brain, and doing everything I could to keep myself together, we started a tough conversation at 8:45 pm. One that I wasn’t completely prepared for.
The Trouble With Talking About Feelings
Feelings are hard to describe. They are even harder to understand. For kids especially, opening up about them doesn’t come easily because they simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe them and don’t have the experience to know how to identify them. Think of how hard it is to describe stress, frustration, anxiety in words that a kid would understand. Those are all very abstract concepts that come with time and exposure to each of those feeling words.
Even in the pre-teen years when these words are more familiar, opening up and having conversations about them is tough because of the vulnerable nature of talking about such sensitive things. Being able to be emotionally vulnerable takes a lot of trust, practice, and a lot of coaching. None of that comes easily, it’s a process that has to be intentionally curated.
A speech pathologist told me a while ago that studies show children actually are not able to adequately understand and verbalize their feelings until about 17 years of age. That leaves a long time of not understanding and not communicating what is actually going on inside, which can make for some very lonely and frustrating years. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child suggests that most behavior occurs because kids are lacking the skill of being able to deal with a specific situation. Sharing and understanding emotions may be a skill that fully develops in later teenage years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t teach our child the skill of being able to identify and explain their emotions, and feel safe doing so, at a younger age.
Prepare The Stage
As my son and I sat down that night, the room felt silent, my heart was pounding as my mind raced with ideas of what to say, what he might say, and how I would react to what it was he was going to say. My nervousness was tangible as we both sat there for an awkward moment or two.
I managed to stutter something like, “So what’s going on?” to which he of course gave me a short response that didn’t get us anywhere. He wanted to talk, I saw it, I felt it, but I was trying too hard to control the situation for him to be comfortable enough to open up. I wanted to make it better, I wanted to solve his problems, in true “mom” fashion. BUT, in doing that, I wasn’t allowing him any room to feel, think, or gain any skills other than listening to another mom lecture. I recognized that and took a step back.
Hand Over the Control
It was then that I relaxed and reminded myself of a few tools I had learned from my favorite parenting books and the years I spent in college (WAY back in the day).
Create A Safe Zone
If someone were to ask me about my day, I would automatically start telling stories about fun things that happened, all the surface things. But if that person were to ask me a direct question about how I REALLY feel about those stories I’d immediately clam up and my heart will start beating. I get defensive and I avoid opening up until I know I am in a place where my feelings will be supported and not judged.
Kids are no different. Before kids are willing to open up about their emotions, or even try to identify them, they have to feel safe.
The easiest way to help a child feel safe is to verbalize and validate their feelings. Something as simple as, “It seems like you are really upset” or “It looks like you might be frustrated” can help a child feel safe enough to start talking and stop worrying about being judged.
The words “it seems like” or “it looks like” are simple but powerful because they allow a child to either agree or disagree with your observation. It is a way for us, as parents, to create a judgment free zone to help neutralize the setting.
As I started this conversation with my son, I was clearly more concerned about my own thoughts and feelings which prevented me from allowing him to open up at all. The moment I said, “It seems like you’ve really been upset about something today,” the awkwardness faded and in that moment it was about him. I was there to support his feelings, and through that simple statement, he felt safe and started to open up.
Hand The Keys Over And Keep The Momentum Going
When kids feel safe enough to open up, the next step is to keep them talking and help them stay in the driver’s seat.
As wise and loving parents, we typically tend to want to jump in and make judgement calls, give a lecture, or quickly solve the problem with sound advice. While all of those feel helpful, and are likely the way our parents solved our problems, the focus here is to help the child learn the skill of solving the problem. That can only happen when they are given the opportunity to work through each and every step.
Thankfully, they don’t have to do it alone.
One little tip I like to use when dealing with these things is to rephrase the statements my child makes about any feeling or emotion. Just as with any new skill, repetition is key and will usually feel awkward at first, but practice makes perfect.
Watching my kids learn to ride bikes the first time was always difficult because I could see exactly where they were going wrong. It wasn’t until they were able to see it (on video) or feel it themselves that they were able to correct the problem and start riding like a champ.
The same holds true with identifying emotions. Kids don’t always recognize what emotions they are feeling, why they are happening, and what they are called. Helping restate and name those as they are felt is just like showing a kid how to push backwards to put on the brakes instead of crashing each time. It takes practice but, by acknowledging those feelings, a child becomes more aware of them and will use words to describe them more often.
This keeps that momentum moving forward so the child is able to move onto the next step towards solving the problem.
Once this process is in full motion and the child is taking the lead, it is time to come full circle and come up with a solution. BUT, the trick is to have your child feel ownership of that solution by coming up with it on his/her own.
The best way to walk a child through the process of coming up with a solution is by asking open ended questions. When this happens in my home, I like to remind myself to turn my statements into questions as often as possible. Instead of saying, “You should go talk to your friend about this and stick up for yourself,” which can sound threatening and scary, I instead ask, “Is this something you think you could talk to your friend about?”
By staying in the role of asking rather than lecturing, a parent opens that door for the child to stay in the driver’s seat and gain experience of solving problems independently, or at least mostly independently. That feeling of doing it on their own sparks confidence and can propel them towards finding solutions quicker, on their own, in the future, or with you by their side as they need help.
Setting the stage, placing them in the drivers seat, and supporting them through the process of finding a solution are the best ways to teach kids to identify, verbalize, and talk about difficult emotions and how to handle them. While the process for my son and I wasn’t quick, it was absolutely worth it. We both cried a few tears together that night as he talked openly about what was bothering him, but at the end of the night, he was more confident in himself and the way he could handle it all the following day. It was worth the late night, and the awkwardness of the day to see it all come full circle at the end of the night.
How do you help your child open up and talk about difficult emotions? Share your thoughts here.