Communicating with a Child Who is Struggling Emotionally

boy-child-cry-256658Is your child struggling with anxiety, fear, anger, hostility, resentment, sadness, or irritability?  Is it hard to tell what could be causing the problem behavior?  Is your child isolating or does he seem more depressed?  Let’s talk about how you can talk to your child in a way that garners a response.

Regardless of your child’s behavior, make time daily to do something enjoyable and relaxing together.  Make it unconditional and without pretense. 

Think of a time when you felt very angry and frustrated, anxious and depressed, or so upset that you didn’t feel like speaking.  Now imagine someone sitting down with you in the heat of the moment and yelling, “Why are you doing this??” Odds are, you may retreat further and refuse to respond.

Now imagine that someone you love takes you out for dinner or coffee, invites you on a walk, or takes you out to do something else that you enjoy.  You reluctantly go, not feeling like engaging, but you participate.  You eventually feel better, get your mind off things, and relax.  Your loved one then asks you how you have been doing.  Now, odds are that you are more likely to talk about what’s been on your mind, right?

We tend to forget that communication happens best when we invest in quality time with each other doing something we both enjoy!  We all talk more when we are relaxed because problems are easier to process when our minds are at ease.  Keep that in mind with your child!  Build on one on one time doing something fun or relaxing, and watch how much more your child talks with you about things that matter!

Instead of focusing on problem behaviors, focus on your child’s underlying needs.  

Children often stop talking to us when they sense we are frustrated with them continually.  They become frustrated with themselves for frustrating us!

When you talk with your child, refrain from bringing up behaviors that are frustrating you.  Instead, ask yourself, “How could his feelings be affecting his behaviors?” Create an open space to talk about those feelings.  Your child may not be able to articulate how he feels, but you can open the door by asking questions that prompt conversation.

For instance, if your child has shut down and isolated himself lately, has he been feeling misunderstood?   Usually, children who isolate want to know they are missed and that parents will come to them and engage them more.

If your child has been acting out to get attention when you are busy with other things, does he just miss your undivided attention?  Often, children act out because they miss parental attention without distractions (screens, calls, social media, or work).

If your child is disrespectful, is he struggling with something that has nothing to do with you?  Often children take out their day’s frustrations on their parents, unsure of how to process feelings from something that happened elsewhere.

Whatever the case may be, refrain from rehashing anything your child has done to frustrate you and stay focused on getting to know what he or she is feeling.

Talk with your child about your own experiences.  Sharing your own vulnerabilities can help your child to know that you also have struggled before.  

Kids have a way of seeing their parents as individuals who have not made mistakes.  When parents share their own struggles (in an age appropriate fashion), it can help children open up more and know that they won’t be judged and that parents can understand.

It is important to not assume your child will have the same feelings you have had, so in sharing a story from your past, don’t make assumptions about him feeling the same way.   Just share your own story, and allow him to listen and take it in.

Take opportunities on a regular basis to share good and bad experiences you’ve had in your own life, and you’ll see that your child will feel more comfortable coming to you to share about himself.  It is a lot easier to talk to someone who isn’t perfect and who may have been through a similar thing or two!

Refrain from being judgmental. 

Don’t make statements that are assumptions.  Validate your child’s feelings rather than correcting them.  For instance, if he talks about a teacher at school and says, “She was so mean to me!” then respond with “I understand what you are saying” or “I can see why you would feel that way.”  Don’t correct his feelings when he just wants to vent.  Allow him to feel heard.

Be a reflective listener. 

I often will hear a child who doesn’t feel heard by his parents voice his grievances in family therapy.  Parents will then talk over him and correct him, seemingly arguing that the child’s feelings aren’t valid or rooted in truth.

Imagine if you felt strongly about something and wanted to tell someone you love.  Now imagine that the person talks over you and tries to correct your version of the story and invalidate your feelings.  You might feel shut down and upset.

When your child shares his feelings with you, reflect those feelings back.  For instance, if he says “You never listen to me!  You just don’t get it!” Respond with “I am sorry you feel like I don’t understand.  I want to understand.”  instead of “Yes I do understand! That isn’t true!”   The former response validates and draws a child closer, while the latter promotes distance.

Be consistent.

We often want changes in our children overnight.  When we make time for our children and are intentional in seeking them out for deeper conversation, it can feel hurtful when their behaviors don’t shift right away.

Be encouraged.  Your persistence in pursuing your child’s heart is so important.  Keep it up.  Children take time to let their parents in.  They want to know that you will keep trying.  The time will come when you recognize that none of your efforts were ever lost on your child.

If you feel your child may be depressed or chronically anxious, seek out professional help.

Seeking out professional help through a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist can be of help to you and your child if struggles continue.  Children who are depressed often present as irritable and easily frustrated.  Children who are anxious may act out toward others rather than talk about what is bothering them.  Some children will become avoidant, and focus on pleasing family when they fear that talking may wound loved ones or worsen conflict.

Never feel you have to tackle all of this on your own.  A behavioral health professional can help your child feel better and provide the support you both need.

“14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” – Colossians 3:14