Family and Friends Mental Health

How to Best Ask Your Child About Their Feelings

A Woman Speaks to Her Daughter About a Serious Subject

Choose the health content that’s right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox.

As adults, the world can be too much to bear at times, even for us. But we’ve had years to find coping tools and are likely experienced in using them to help us through tough situations and difficult emotions. However, for kids with developing minds, their emotions can easily get out of control as they try to make sense of life and cope with big, unfamiliar feelings. They may act out in unusual ways no matter their age as they navigate various situations and the strong emotions that accompany them.

As parents, it can be difficult to see your child struggling, let alone know how to approach them when you suspect that something is out of balance. We’re here with our expert from pediatric psychiatry, MinhGiang Nguyen, LMHC, with age-appropriate advice on how to best keep the lines of communication open with your child during difficult times by asking them about their feelings. Communicating those big feelings is key to your child’s mental and emotional well-being.

Focus on What You Can Control

“Kids' sense of control comes from structure and routine in an ever-changing, unpredictable outside world. When routines change and structure isn’t present, it's a lot harder for them to cope,” says MinhGiang.

There are many things we can’t control, but by focusing on what we can control and keeping a strict routine, our kids will feel much more secure. That said, here are some specific steps you can take, based on their age group, to ask the right questions in the right way so you can most effectively help them manage their emotions and feel better.

Ages 12 and Under

Consider your child’s developmental age. Younger children, like toddlers and elementary school kids, don’t have the capacity for too many details, so be sure to keep the conversations simple.

Step 1: Do You Need Time?

Just like for adults, when we’re faced with something difficult, we don’t necessarily want to talk at that particular time. MinhGiang advises, “You can give your little one a couple of choices such as, ‘I’ll talk to you in 30 minutes or an hour.’ This will set a boundary and will also show your child that you care as you continue to pursue them.”

Step 2: Ask Questions and Encourage Theirs

What do you want your child to share? “Be sure to ask them what they’d like them to share and continue keeping the concepts discussed simple and age-appropriate,” says MinhGiang.

Encourage and accept your kids’ questions as well. Children of all ages come up with questions you’ll never expect. Try not to react too much emotionally no matter the question, and answer to the best of your ability. If you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say so, letting your child know that you’ll keep talking about the topic at hand. Let them know that it’s good to be curious and ask hard questions about hard things.

Step 3: How Can I Help?

Showing your little one that you’re there to support them builds trust for the future in being that open line of communication. As a parent, practice active listening. Make sure to put away all devices during these conversations, maintain good eye contact and don’t talk over them.

“Help them name and validate their feelings,” says MinhGiang. She continues, “You can say things like, ‘you look sad,’ or, ‘I can tell this situation upsets you. I can see why.’ Show you understand what they feel by mirroring back. An example might be, ‘I hear you feeling confused about all the big changes our world is going through.’”

Ages 13-17

For teenagers, don’t assume you know what they’re thinking. They might seem to know their stuff on the outside, but might be confused and need more direction to help them understand the emotional impacts of whatever they’re going through. They may act less mature and dismissive during tough conversations as a front for their feelings, which is normal.

Step 1: Do You Need Time?

As with younger kids, your teen may not want to talk right then and there. It’s important to give them that space if they ask for it. MinhGiang explains, “With a teen, you can ask ‘Do you need time right now?’ You can give them between three and five choices of another time to talk as opposed to one or two for the littler ones.”

You’ll want to aim for a specific time frame to talk because “later” isn’t precise and tends to keep getting pushed back. You can specify it by saying something like, “Come talk to me in 2-3 hours after homework or after practice.”

Keep in mind that teens often let off steam by venting or ranting. You’ll learn with your teen and find out if they just want to vent or if they’re asking your advice.

MinhGiang says, “Establishing code words and phrases can help, too. For instance, the code phrase, ‘Mom, broccoli,’ might mean you’d know to come check in with them at another time, especially if they’re in an environment where they don’t feel comfortable speaking about what’s on their mind.”

Step 2: Ask Questions and Encourage Theirs

As with kids 12 and under, follow the same protocol but keeping in mind they’re teens and can handle a little more detail. Start by asking them what’s going on to learn more, and remember to circle back if your teen doesn’t want to talk at the moment.

Step 3: How Can I Help?

Teens are also going through a lot of hormonal changes, which can play into their mental and emotional health. It’s important to show them that you’re able to help them if they need it. Again, being that open line of communication and trust that they can go to in hard situations is vital to their whole health. Let them know they can trust you with anything, no matter how challenging.

MinhGiang emphasizes that not forcing the issue in favor of taking the time to build trust is very important. “Do build up a consistent routine so they know what to expect, and let them take the time to trust you with their feelings. Of course, if there are any signs of self-harm or serious behaviors that could hurt them or others, act and get help immediately. But focus on prevention so that it doesn’t get to that point,” she says.

Extreme Warning Signs in Little Ones (12 and Under)

There are times when feelings can become so deep and out of control that physical symptoms and behaviors may start to surface that could be harmful to your child and/or those around them. If your child displays any of the following signs, give them all the help they need and seek professional help as well. They could be symptoms of an underlying mental health condition:

  • ADHD (concentration issues)
  • Aggression
  • Behavioral issues
  • Being bullied
  • Bullying others
  • Destroying things
  • Harming animals
  • Showing anxiety symptoms like fidgeting or shaking hands

Extreme Warning Signs in Teens

If you observe any of the following in your teen, tap into what’s going on and seek professional help if needed:

  • A complete change in their personality (example: going from happy and animated to sad and withdrawn)
  • Eating too much or not enough
  • Hurting animals
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Wearing clothes that are not weather-appropriate (long sleeves or jackets could mean they’re hiding indications of self-harm)

Here to Help Keep Kids Whole

Along with you at their side, you can trust us to be another safe place for your child to heal from any mental health condition that may be decreasing their quality of life and childlike joy.

Learn more about our pediatric mental health program, resources we can provide, and how we can help your child live life to the fullest.

Recent Blogs

A Child with Down Syndrome Smiles While he and his Mother Look at Content on an iPad
Care for the Whole Lifespan: How to Optimize Care for People with Down Syndrome
A MOther and Daughter Smile as They Sit Together and Surf the Internet on a Tablet.
Tackling Tough Topics With Your Kids
Hidden in Plain Sight: The Impact of Cyberbullying on Children
A New Born Baby Sleeps in an Incubator
NICU Levels: What Do They Mean?
Eating Disorders in Children: Types, Warning Signs, Risk Factors and Treatments
View More Articles