Talking to children about feelings
Tips for parents and carers
A few of the activities in our Wellbeing Challenge pack may bring up different emotions for your children, negative as well as positive. They might include sadness, fear and anger, and it may be helpful to talk to them about them. Here are some tips from some of our mental health trainers that we hope you will find useful.
If your child is feeling an emotion such as sadness or anger you might be tempted to give them all the reasons why they don’t need to feel sad or angry. This is a natural parental response and might be very effective with your child. However, it can backfire as the child feels you don’t really understand their feelings. An alternative is to really explore that emotion and validate it using a technique called ALVS:
ATTEND – to the visual or behavioural signs
“You are very tearful today”
“You slammed the door really hard”
“I can see you are picking at the skin on your finger”
LABEL – guess the emotion: “You seem sad, angry, anxious, scare…”.
Your child may or may not respond – and may correct you
VALIDATE THE EMOTION – again you might have to make a guess
“You are sad because you are really missing your granny/best friend, and because you can’t play football with your team”
“You are angry because your teacher told you off for missing virtual school when it wasn’t your fault”
“You are scared because Grandpa is in hospital”
Follow this up by saying something like:
“I would be sad, angry etc if I was in that situation”
“I also feel that way about lots of things at the moment”
SOOTHE – this depends on the emotion but could be a hug, giving some space and coming back to them later, or a distraction:
“Let me give you a hug”
“I can see you don’t want to talk right now and that is ok, we can talk later”
“Let’s go for a dog walk, dig the garden, make a Lego pirate ship…”
Emotions are normal!
Remember to talk about reasons we have emotions, and that it is normal for all of us to experience the whole range of emotions. Feeling sad helps us to have empathy for others who are sad. Feeling angry can inspire us to do great things – Greta Thunberg is a popular example for children. Feeling fear can induce the fight flight response which is useful to enable you to run away from real danger. This also gives you the opportunity to distinguish between everyday emotions and overwhelming emotions.
It is likely that anxiety levels within many homes are quite high at the moment. Anxiety can manifest itself through sadness, anger, fear, disgust. You could get your child to draw or write down what anxiety feels like in their body (raised heart rate, sweaty hands, fast or slow breathing, headaches and so on). Then ask them to think about what might help to calm these physical feelings (breathing exercises, counting, noticing things you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste).
Useful films to watch together
A great opener to talking about emotions is to watch clips from the film Inside Out such as the one describing Riley’s emotions. There are lots of other clips on YouTube you could watch together too or you might watch the whole film together.
In Inside Out you will meet Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. You and your child could take it in turns to write down any other emotions you might be experiencing and that can trigger a discussion of all the pleasurable emotions as well as those that can be difficult.
Being a role model
In our mental health training sessions with parents, one of the key points they raise is the issue of parents/carers as role models. Some of the activities in the pack could be done by the whole family. This allows parents and carers to speak openly and sensitively about their own feelings, to reassure their children that it is normal to have an emotional response to this situation, and that it is possible to take positive steps to address these difficult feelings.
Following on from this, it is important for parents to highlight that help-seeking is not a sign of weakness, and that it is instead a sign of strength. This is especially true for parents experiencing mental health difficulties themselves – NSPCC have a really useful webpage about parenting during coronavirus and parenting with mental health issues. The Young Minds Parents Helpline is also a really useful source of support.
Taking positive steps
If you are talking to your children about things that make them feel sad, lonely or anxious, it is important to have positive steps that you can take to address these as much as is reasonably possible. For example, when something makes them think of their friends, is it possible to organise a Zoom or Skype chat with their friends? Or to put together a photo album or produce some artwork – difficult emotions are normal, but that does not mean we need to wallow in them.
The current situation means being in close proximity with family members and this can lead to frayed nerves and tension. On the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) website, they suggest families having an honest and open discussion about everyone’s triggers, to enable families to be more aware of situations or discussions that are likely to cause annoyance or distress. Read the full article: How to maintain happy family relationships in difficult circumstances.
Do bear in mind, though, that open conversations about mental wellbeing should not be undertaken when any party is experiencing a period of high distress or anxiety.
It’s important to remember that parents and carers generally want to think that their children would be able to speak to them about anything that is worrying them. However, we know that this is not always the case, even for children who have a good relationship with their families. Letting them know you don’t mind if they want to speak to someone else is a powerful indication of trust and that you will not dismiss their feelings or take their urge to speak to someone else personally. The Childline website has a really useful guide for children during lockdown, and you can read our own tips on talking to your child about coronavirus here.