Let's Talk: Seven Ways to Help Kids and Teens Open Up
As part of Cook Children's Joy Campaign, which aims to prevent youth suicide attempts, we're looking at ways parents can help kids communicate about their thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Fourteen in a series.
Talking about hard things isn’t easy, especially for a child or teen. It’s scary to be vulnerable. But talking can bring clarity. Sharing your hurts, struggles and stress can be a release, and leaning on someone you love can lighten your mental and emotional load.
“Feelings really are visitors trying to tell you a story,” said Denise Coover, LCSW, a trauma informed care specialist at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “If you ignore the story it just keeps building and building and will demand to be heard. Think of holding in feelings like a trash compactor. You keep pressing it down, pressing it down, but eventually it explodes like a volcano. Usually with frustration, anger and aggression and that’s the danger. These things need to be expressed within a safe environment and relationship. That is key.”
Kids need adults—parents, teachers, counselors, pastors and mentors—to create an environment where they feel secure and free to unpack the things that weigh on their minds and hearts. Trusted adults can help release the pressure on the trash compactor, so to speak.
“By talking with someone we trust, we are able to process our feelings as they arise,” said Marissa Benners, Ph.D., LP, a psychologist at Cook Children’s. “It makes it easier to manage the everyday demands of life without the pressure of unresolved feelings weighing us down. Sharing our feelings with others gives us an extra person who can help us problem solve and figure out the best coping strategy.”
Michael Garcia, MS, LPC, is a trauma specialist for the Fort Worth Independent School District where he works with children in crisis every day. Without a trusted adult, he cautions that a child’s development could be influenced by less positive sources.
“A child who is struggling wants to be comforted and feel safe,” Garcia said. “A loving and caring adult provides the necessary attachment a child needs to learn how to effectively communicate needs, meet those needs and manage emotional regulation. A positive and connected caregiver greatly influences the child’s ability to navigate difficult challenges.”
But many parents have their own hurts, experiences, worries, commitments and unfulfilled expectations that are barriers to being a sounding board and source of strength for their kids.
“Parenting isn’t easy,” Garcia said. “As a matter of fact, it’s my most challenging undertaking. It’s not always easy to listen to our children with empathy and compassion when our heads are spinning with finances, deadlines, relationships, piles of laundry and a myriad of daily speed bumps.”
On the flip side, kids don’t want to be a burden to their parents who they see juggling the demands of daily life.
“Kids often tell me the adults in their lives don’t care, are too busy, have their own problems and they don’t want to cause more problems,” Garcia said. “A lot of kids are empathetic to what their parents are going through and don’t want to be another burden.”
In a recent focus group conducted by Cook Children’s, several teens said feelings of fear and insecurity also get in the way of opening up to others. They are unsure how their message will be received, and are afraid of getting in trouble, being misinterpreted and, especially these days, being canceled.
When adults allow the complications of daily life, difficult pasts, fear of other’s perceptions and shame to lead, the unwritten no-talk rule sets itself up as the standard in the home and muzzles any opportunity for communication, connection, teaching and healing. It’s one thing for a child to suffer. It’s another for them to suffer in silence. Pushing hard issues under the rug, or ignoring a child’s emotions—a natural sign that something is going on—won’t make things go away. Instead, it teaches kids to hide their struggles and sets up a breeding ground for shame, guilt, rejection, lack of trust and hopelessness.
So how can parents, teachers and child advocates be a trusted adult that welcomes the hard conversations? How can trusted adults encourage communication that sheds light on the root of the issue and helps them guide kids to problem solve through a situation?
Take stock. Garcia said we can’t be a trusted adult when we feel like we have nothing left to give. Ask yourself what you need as a parent so that you can be truly present with your kids. If you need help with your own struggles, reach out. Equipping yourself will help you take care of and equip your children.
“We are all doing the best we can, and we can do better,” Garcia said. “Kids need us to be present, loving, comforting, empathetic, compassionate and honest. They need to know that they can trust us with whatever storm is raining down on them. We have to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our children.”
Harness your own emotions. Parents have emotions too. It’s easy and natural for those emotions to surface, especially when it comes to your children. But harnessing those feelings like anger and frustration in the moment can help you see and respond to the reality of the situation, rather than getting caught up in the emotion. Responding out of anger will only frustrate a child, but responding out of love, patience and wisdom will teach them important coping skills that will benefit them for life.
“One of the most important factors in creating a safe space is responding to your child in a calm and compassionate manner,” Benners said. “When adults regulate their own emotions during conversations, it helps those around them feel more at ease or relaxed. Parents can help foster open conversation by being honest about their own feelings. By calmly expressing our feelings during periods of stress, for example saying, ‘I’m feeling very frustrated at the moment and I need a few minutes to calm down,’ we help normalize feelings and we teach our kids an adaptive way to express them and to ask for help.”
Watch their cues. Kids will demonstrate they need to talk through their emotions and behavior.
“When we bottle our feelings up, they tend to come out in other ways,” Benners said.
Stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, irritability, meltdowns and oppositional behavior are all indicators that your child might have something weighing on their heart and mind.
Listen. This is the most important thing an adult can do for a child, according to Garcia.
“Trust comes from actively listening without judging,” he said. “Listening with empathy, compassion and curiosity is how we encourage kids to share openly.”
Embrace your child’s communication style. Kids communicate in different ways. The key is to figure out what works best for them at their current age and stage of life and go with it.
For younger kids, play is always a good communication tool.
“What kids can do in play, they can do in life,” Coover said. “I like to give a young child a toy, like a dinosaur, and throw out a scenario. Maybe T-Rex is bullying and saying you’re green, fat and ugly and pushing. If the child doesn’t have good coping skills, the dinosaur will just sit there.”
That’s when you can start talking to them about how they would handle the situation. Ask questions that help them think through how to respond. Could you tell mommy dinosaur? Can you walk away?
For older kids, especially teens, seizing the moment while you are doing another activity together is a great way to set the stage for conversation.
“I'm a big fan of asking kids questions when you're on a car ride,” Coover explained. “There's something about that side-by-side movement where they don't really have to look at you. Maybe music is playing. You get the vibration of the car. You're not really looking at them because you're concentrating on the road. Then, all of a sudden you can get all of this information from them.”
Striking up a conversation around the dinner table is another good way to check in. Coover suggests asking your child what was one thing that made them mad, sad, happy and worried that day to get the conversation flowing.
When a child can’t find the words to speak, let them draw it or write it.
“Some kids either don't have the verbiage to be able to say it or they're feeling insecure or are afraid you're going to get mad,” Coover said. “So they'll feel more comfortable writing it. I really like notebooks for pre-teens and adolescents. Like a regular composition book. Nothing fancy.
Tell your child, ‘if there's something going on you can write it and put it right here and I'll read it and respond to you.’ With little kids, if you have them come home and just draw about their day, it’s amazing what you’ll find out.”
Be an equiper, not a fixer. It’s easy for adults to want to fix a problem for a child. That takes a lot less time than letting a child express what they are thinking and feeling, but that’s not always beneficial.
“When we constantly fix things for our kids, their brains don't grow,” Coover said. “They become adults who can't manage any kind of problem in life because they've never had to. Someone has always stepped in and just took care of it for them. So their brain didn't grow in that way. They didn't create those neural pathways to know how to consider their solutions. I think it’s important that parents know that they don’t necessarily have to fix that feeling, but actually ask if their child wants advice or insight.”
Encourage them. Help them think through the issue, and make sure they know that you are here to help them figure things out.
Check in. No matter how you communicate with your child, it’s important to check in with them regularly.
“Allocate designated time with your children on a weekly basis,” Benners said. “Put your devices away and just focus on having fun together. Teens often feel like they don’t have much control over their lives, so allow them to choose an activity that appeals to them. During this time, don’t be overly intrusive by asking questions. Instead, follow your child’s lead and you may find that they will eventually open up on their own.”
When your kids know that you can be a trusted sounding board and source of wisdom for them, you’ll have the opportunity to equip them with the life skills they need for healthy living, hopefulness and resilience.
About the Joy Campaign
Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.
Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.
The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.
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