Let’s Talk: Helping our kids manage overwhelming feelings in difficult times

By Jodi Woodnick, School Counselor

As we process the world around us, we collectively grieve. We grieve for lost months of school, graduations, sports seasons, and summers at camp, not to mention losses of life and expressions of sadness and anger all around us. And with grief comes a range of emotions from sadness to anger to disconnection and more. 

For adults it can be challenging to pinpoint how we’re feeling right now, much less address those feelings. How can we possibly help our children? I face this question every day as I try (and sometimes fail) to help my own pre-teen boys navigate this world.

One thing we know for sure is that sharing our feelings is associated with improved mental and emotional health. Not only does it help us process and problem-solve, it also leads to improved self-control, and improved relationships with loved ones. Here are a few basic tips and strategies I have found to help children identify and open up about their feelings, today and beyond. 

Be open and descriptive about your own feelings

It is important for children to see the adults in their lives experiencing a range of emotions. Often, we try to shield our kids from our own sadness, fear, and insecurity, either because we were raised to believe that these feelings are a sign of weakness or because we worry that they will not be able to process what they are seeing. In fact, when our kids see us experiencing a range of emotions, we teach them coping strategies by example. Also, experiencing overwhelming feelings can be scary for kids, and can make them feel out-of-control. When we express our feelings as adults, we can show them that feelings don’t have to be scary, and that you can be in control of yourself, even if you’re experiencing a “big” feeling.

Talk about feelings regularly and often

Talk about feelings during happy times, neutral times AND challenging times. Use a variety of “feelings words” to support your child’s emotional vocabulary. Just like any vocabulary, it becomes part of our everyday vernacular when we hear it and use it regularly. If your child has a robust emotional vocabulary, and is comfortable with the language in general, it will be easier to have difficult conversations when they come up. 

Watch your responses

Believe it or not, your kids are listening to everything you say. When they hear you judging others for their behaviors and choices, they may be less likely to open up to you, for fear of being judged in the same way. Also, if your child opens up to you about something you find shocking, watch your reaction to them. If you panic, your child may not want to open up to you again because they won’t want to upset you. 

Use age-appropriate media to help relate characters’ feelings to real-life feelings

Sometimes, it’s easier for kids to understand something if they can recognize it in someone else. As you’re watching TV or reading books together at night, work discussions about feelings into the debriefing process, even if it seems silly.  For example, “SpongeBob” never gets his driver’s license no matter how hard he tries, or how badly he wants it. You can ask your child how they think SpongeBob feels, and discuss what coping strategies SpongeBob uses to handle his feelings. 

Make space for different communication modalities

Not everyone communicates feelings through talking. Some write, some draw, others throw a ball. You know your child best, and what will work for them. Here are just a few ideas…

  • Create a Shared Journal. This is a relatively simple concept, where you and your child write notes to each other, creating opportunities for safe and open communication.
  • Engage in preferred activities with your child. Some kids are more likely to open up if they are occupied with another activity, such as taking a walk, throwing a ball, or working on a craft.
  • Explore music and/or lyrics that speak to your child’s feelings. Sometimes a song can encapsulate a feeling better than paragraphs of text.

Treat your child with respect. 

It sounds simple, but the word “respect” gets thrown around a lot without analysis of what it really means in practice. When it comes to encouraging your kids to open up about their feelings, the primary objective is for them to feel safe and secure talking to you. Here are a few concrete ways to accomplish that…

  • Be honest with your kids. They can handle so much more than we give them credit for.
  • Accept them for who they are, and don’t judge their choices or friendships.
  • Show genuine, non-distracted, interest when they talk about what interests them.
  • Give them space to feel without badgering, let them know you’re here to listen when they’re ready
  • If your child shares a problem with you, don’t give advice right away. Advice can send a message to your child that you don’t believe in their ability to problem-solve. Instead, explore the feelings associated with the problem.

Remember, no matter what the situation, there are going to be things your child can control, and things they can’t.

Helping children to focus on things they can control (even if it’s just their perspective or responses) can help them to feel some power over their lives. Help your child use negative feelings as a springboard for action, asking “What can you do? What are your options?” Sitting in self-pity is not productive, nor is blaming others. FInally, be careful about dwelling in negative feelings. As parents, we reinforce that which we give our attention. By giving an inordinate amount of attention to negative feelings, we may inadvertently reinforce those feelings.

Finally, watch for warning signs of clinical levels of sadness and anxiety, and seek help from a mental health professional.

If your child is talking about self-harm or suicide, is crying excessively, isolating themselves, tantruming/lashing out more than usual, or you have seen a shift in their personality, please reach out to a mental health professional.