Talking to children about feelings

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Talking to children about feelings

Tips for parents and carers

Children will react to what is going on in their life, for instance the current coronavirus pandemic, and each situation 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.

Exploring emotions

If your child or young person 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 so that they start to feel less sad or angry. It’s understandable to want the child or young person to feel less sad or angry, as these can be unpleasant emotions to experience. However, trying to stop someone feeling sad or angry by giving them reasons not to feel that way might result in the child or young person thinking that you don’t really understand their feelings. An alternative is to really explore that emotion and validate it using a technique known by the acronym 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 or young person may or may not respond – and may correct you. For example “I am not sad, I am worried about…” which helps them (and you) to better understand how they are feeling.


Validate an emotion – again you might have to make a guess

“I’m wondering if 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?”

“Are you scared because Grandfather is in hospital?”

Follow this up by saying something like:

“I would be sad/angry etc., if I was in that situation”

“It’s understandable that you feel like that!”

“I also feel that way about lots of things at the moment”


Soothe – this depends on the emotion but it could be offering to talk some more, asking them what would help, giving some space and coming back to them later, or it could be offering a hug, or a distraction:

You could ask directly: “What would help you right now?” They may not know, or they may not want to talk about it at that point in time. If so, saying “I can see you don’t want to talk right now and that is ok, we can talk about it later, when you are ready, just let me know”

“Can I give you a hug”

“Shall we go for a dog walk, dig the garden, play a game (or whatever else they usually like to do)”

Having emotions is normal!

Talking to children and young people about reasons we have emotions, and that it is normal for all of us to experience the whole range of emotions, can be helpful. Feeling sad is an appropriate response to loss or disappointment. Feeling angry can move us to protect ourselves if we are being threatened and 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. Experiencing our own emotions helps us to develop empathy for others who are sad, fearful or angry. Talking about the reasons for emotions 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, withdrawal or detachment. You could ask your child or young person 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 and carers, one of the key points they raise is the issue of parents/carers as role models for emotional regulation. There is a good article here on how children learn to regulate their emotions and what parents and carers can do to help them with this process: Emotional Regulation in Children. You can also read a good article from Healthy Place on how to be a role model.

It is important for parents to highlight that talking about emotions and 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 has 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 child or young person about things that make them feel sad, lonely or anxious, it is important to have positive steps that you can take to address the things or situations that are triggering these emotions, as much as is reasonably possible. For example, if they are sad because they haven’t been able to see their friends for some time, is it possible to organise a Zoom or Skype chat, or perhaps meet with their friends subject to current pandemic restrictions? It might be helpfuol to make something together, perhaps a photo album or some artwork.

It’s important to remember that experiencing difficult emotions is a normal part of life; it’s important that we experience them, and understand that they are telling us we need to pay attention to something that is bothering us. If we are helped to notice them, talk about them, understand them, distract ourselves if necessary and then move on, this may help prevent us getting ‘stuck’ with unpleasant emotions which become more intense or longer lasting.  

Keep talking!

The current restrictions with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may mean being in closer proximity with family members and this may lead to frayed nerves and tension. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) recommend that families have an honest and open discussion about everyone’s triggers, to enable each family member to be more aware of situations or discussions that are likely to cause annoyance or distress. Read the more about this here: 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.



Asking for help (adult)

When it’s time to talk about your mental health.

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Asking for help (young person)

A simple guide for young people to help talk about their feelings.

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Depression booklet

Featuring useful facts, figures and information, this booklet also contains sources of help and what not to say to people experiencing depression

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Guide to depression for parents and carers

This booklet aims to help recognise and understand depression and how to get appropriate help for their child

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Guide to depression for parents and carers (Welsh)

This booklet aims to help parents recognise and understand depression and how to get appropriate help for their child

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Low mood poster

Poster created in partnership with Bank Workers Charity highlighting common causes of low mood, how to help yourself feel better and information on where to get more help.

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Aiming high can sometimes come at a cost. This eight page guide looks at ‘unhealthy perfectionism’ – how to spot it and advice on how to develop effective interventions.

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Supporting a child with anxiety

A guide for parents and carers to help understand anxiety more clearly and begin to address it.

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Warning signs poster

A bold A3 poster showing the warning signs that tell you when someone may be depressed. This poster could save a life.

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Wellbeing Action Plan (child)

A simple, resource to help young people keep themselves well and get them through difficult times

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Wellbeing Activities

Activity sheets on the five ways to wellbeing.

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Wellbeing Journal

A simple, journal to help young people think about and write down the things which make them feel good.

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Wellbeing Action Plan (adult)

A simple, resource to help adults support and maintain their wellbeing.

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