Knowing how to talk to your kid about feelings isn’t always easy - try these 7 child-therapist-approved ways to get them talking

Plus, examples of conversations you could have with your little one, that might help.

Father talking to son about feelings
(Image credit: Wavebreakmedia/Getty Images)

Don't worry if your kids struggle to talk about their feelings, it's a challenge faced by many parents. We speak to the experts who offer seven ways to help encourage your child to open up and get those conversations going.

As kids become more aware of the world that exists outside of themselves, they start to feel a range of different emotions. While they might become adept at recognising those feelings, what they aren't so great at is talking about them. That's OK, some adults find this difficult, especially if it's something they weren't brought up to do themselves. Talking to kids about divorce, and broaching conversations about cancer, are just some of the topics that involve talking to children about their feelings. Some parents find toys to support their child's mental health useful when tackling difficult conversations. 

Kemi Omijeh is an experienced BACP registered psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, who works with children and families. She tells us "Having those difficult conversations about feelings starts with ensuring that you are okay and ready to engage with your child... During periods of intense emotions, it’s ok to take a breather and pause. Avoid engaging in talking with your children about their feelings if you are feeling overwhelmed, tired, and stressed."

In this article, BACP-accredited therapists Kemi Omijeh and Heidi Soholt, offer their expertise on how to talk to children about feelings. They offer seven methods to try when engaging kids to discuss how they're feeling, and examples of what those conversations might look like. They also give guidance on what to do if your children won't say anything back, and signpost to other resources that might help with this difficult aspect of parenting.

How to talk to children about feelings

It's easy to communicate with others in a way that means we don't truly listen. How often do you ask someone how they are, and not really take in the response? You'll probably find it's the same the other way around - another mum shouts to you on the school run, "How are you," and you'll automatically concur that you're absolutely fine, even if you're about to burst into tears in an exhausted heap on the floor.

With our children, it's important to have a deeper connection when we explore their feelings. We know this can be difficult, especially with a child struggling to understand what they're feeling, let alone talk about it. Older children and teens can be even more closed off - they might understand their feelings better, but choose not to talk about them for many reasons.

Kemi Omijeh tells us, "It can be really hard to engage in feelings talk if this wasn’t role modelled for you and you weren’t raised to talk about feelings. I would encourage you to lean into that discomfort as it can be healing and empowering for you and help you break the cycle. A safe and creative way to explore feelings if you are not used to it is play, books, and masks. You can play with your children’s toys and characters and have them express a range of feelings. You can create feelings/emoji masks using paper plates." 

She added "I would encourage parents to normalise talking about feelings by incorporating this into their daily routine and role model talking about their feelings in an age-appropriate manner. When we have a young toddler, we naturally encourage and expand their language by using observational language; 'look, it’s a red bus!' The young child then has extra descriptive information and language. The same approach can be used with feelings, parents can use specific emotional language to name and label their different experiences throughout the day.

Use phrases such as 'I felt so happy when you gave me a cuddle' and 'I am feeling cross because I can’t find my keys.' You can also give them the feelings of language by commenting on what you observe such as 'I can see you are feeling very sad' and 'I can see you are angry because I asked you to do something you didn't want to do.' 

Heidi Soholt is a highly experienced BACP-accredited psychotherapist who specialises in helping children and adults overcome a wide range of issues. Heidi told us "Expressing feelings can be challenging, but teaching children to do so will provide an important outlet for emotions. Using simple terms such as sad, happy, and worried, to describe your own feelings, will teach children the language needed to articulate emotions, and signal that it is okay to be open about them. There are also lots of resources available, such as books and games, that are great ways to teach children emotional language.

If your upbringing and experience make this challenging, try to focus on the outcome you want for your child. It may be worth exploring any obstacles with a professional, who can help you make sense of your reactions."

7 ways to get your children talking

1. Regular check-ins

Kemi Omijeh had some advice for us about this. She says "Regular check-ins make it easier to talk about feelings, particularly on occasions that you need to. If your child is already used to you checking in with their feelings, they are more likely to open up."

Heidi Soholt added that regular check-ins are OK if your child is reluctant to open up, adding "There are many opportunities to talk to your child about feelings, ranging from simple, everyday chats to discussions about more serious matters like grief or divorce. The important thing to remember is that children need to feel safe to engage." 

This could take the form of telling your child you've packed their favourite packed lunch for school the next day. This gets a potential conversation off to a good start, with your small act of service towards them. Next, when you check in on whether they're ready to open up, you'll both be in a positive place to start.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions needn't even be related to the discussion you're trying to have. They can simply be a mechanism to start up a dialogue. Conversation starters offer your child a whole range of answers, eventually steering the conversation towards where you need it to go. Kemi Omijeh said "Open-ended questions can help your child talk about their feelings. Ensure you allow them some thinking time, and don't rush them for answers." 

This can take place around the table at dinner, with each family member sharing something positive from their day. Discussion can then turn to how it made the child feel, and if they want to discuss it further. If discussing with family isn't appropriate, make sure your child feels safe when you approach them. You could open with the question "What was the most exciting thing that happened today?" 

3. Revisit the conversation

This looks a little different to regular check-ins. Checking in is for getting the initial conversation started. Once the discussion is underway, your child might bring it to a close before you feel it has come to an end. That's OK, and you can just revisit it again in the future.

Kemi Omijeh offered her opinion, telling us "It’s okay to revisit the conversation, sometimes children respond better to a little and often approach." Make sure you give them space to have their feelings before you revisit. This could look like just sitting in the same space of them, with no pressure for them to talk. This models mindful behaviour and sets the right tone. Once they look relaxed and ready to re-engage, off you go.

4. Validate their feelings

Children need to feel heard, and that their feelings have meaning for you. Heidi Soholt told us "Give children time to be calm and try to stay with the feeling they’re trying to communicate rather than offering opinions, advice or criticism. Phrases like 'that seems like a worry' or 'that sounds scary' are neutral and signal that you are validating and listening."

Kemi Omijeh added "When they do open up about their feelings it’s important to validate their feelings and acknowledge that it’s okay to feel what they feel, even if you don’t agree with it and/or understand it." This could entail simply reminding them that you're always there for them, and letting them know it's OK for their thoughts and feelings about something to change and evolve - they don't need to worry if everything feels a little upside down.  

5. Don't challenge their feelings

In the same way children need to know you're on board with what they're trying to tell you, a deeper connection will be held if you don't challenge them. Challenging is likely to result in them becoming closed off. If you're feeling personal difficulty in what they're telling you, this is likely to happen to a lot of parents at some point. Take a breath, and keep your tone neutral and nurturing.   

Kemi Omijeh said "Be mindful of not questioning or challenging their feelings. Children often simply want to feel connected and supported by their adult and sometimes your presence and reassurance is enough." No matter how you feel, showing your child they are your absolute priority, will maintain good levels of trust.

6. Get music involved

Music can work wonders for getting children to open up. The earliest songs they learn will have a story to tell. The older they get, they'll understand some songs will convey complex messages. Even if they aren't listening to the words, music can act to calm children down. Listening to their favourite music before a difficult conversation might be the key to it going well.

Mum-of-two Beate, found a great way to get her child to open up. She shared with us "My son has always struggled to talk about his feelings. He loves music and started writing down little song lyrics he'd made up here and there. Then he came to me with an entire page of lyrics to the tune of a popular song, that he'd changed to include how he felt. It made me well up because it was really clever, and quite a profound way for us to finally get  to grips with what his real feelings were."

7. Be creative in other ways

You don't have to use music to get your child talking about their feelings. They might know exactly what they want to say, but are simply unable to express themselves verbally, no matter how well you've approached the situation. 

Heidi Soholt said "Children may also struggle to articulate feelings and expecting them to do this may put pressure on them. If you are sensing your child wants to talk, but is struggling, then you could try to offer them another outlet - they could try to draw, paint or make the feeling, or tell it as a story with characters they've made up." 

This could take the form of asking your child about their picture, with questions like "Why did you choose that colour?," or "What is this person telling me?" You could read existing books with your child and connect facial expressions of the characters, with a particular emotion. Watch your child during this for any verbal or non-verbal cues that they're ready to move the conversation towards their own feelings. 

Examples of conversations

How it sounds: Your child screams "I hate you," and runs away crying. 

Why it happens: Heidi Soholt said "If a child has screamed they hate you, mid-tantrum, try not to take it personally. A child will often express rage or anger at those they are closest to and will feel remorse afterwards. When they are calm, try to unpick where the emotion came from. Think about how to convey a message about feelings being okay, and we have choices about what we do with them - this could prompt a useful discussion about consequences.

What you can do about it: Dr Becky has a lot of useful content around this on her Instagram page. As a psychologist, she says "We all deserve to be believed. And when someone doesn't believe our feelings, we all escalate our expression of the feeling in a desperate bid to be taken seriously. Take a deep breath and share simple words like this: 'You're upset, I believe you, tell me more.' You're getting to the core issue, you're not reinforcing bad behaviour. You're getting to the core issue, you're connecting to the actual feeling which is how your child will learn to express themselves more calmly."

How it sounds: Your child comes to you and says "Nobody wants to play with me."

Why it happens: Your child might be tired and had a bad day, leading to disagreements with friends that they see as nobody wanting to play with them. Or, they could genuinely have been in a situation where they were excluded or felt like nobody wanted to be their friend.

What you can do about it: Dr Becky also has advice for this situation. She suggests that this isn't minimised as one off, and kids shouldn't be told things will be better tomorrow. She said "Our feelings are overwhelming because we feel alone in them. When you tell a kid something's not a big deal, or will be better tomorrow, you only make them feel more alone in that feeling, which only makes them feel more overwhelmed. Use these words as a response: 'I'm so glad you're talking to me about this, that sounds hard, I believe you.' What you're doing is removing the aloneness. This actually builds their resilience. Our feelings are looking for support, not solutions."

How it sounds: Your child utters the words "Everyone in my class is better than me at reading."

Why it happens: Although tough to hear, making comparisons can be a natural part of life. While they might not have interpreted their findings correctly, they're learning sensitivity to societies norms and expectations. Comparisons surrounding ability actually helps children grow, and learn to understand their strengths and what they find challenging. While finding out they're weaknesses can be hurtful, there are ways parents can help. 

What you can do about it: Dr Becky has further useful insight, advising parents not to tell the child they're wrong and are actually good at the thing they think they aren't - doing this can lower their confidence even more. She told her audience "Say 'I'm glad you're sharing that with me, that feels really tricky. Tell me more, keep going.' When we show our kids we're not scared of their experiences, they learn not to be scared of those same experiences. That's what builds lifelong confidence."

What to do if children say nothing back

There might be times where you simply can't get your child to engage, and that's OK. Kemi Omijeh told us "Try different forms of communication, talking is just one of the ways feelings can be explored. Perhaps your child would prefer to write or draw how they are feeling? It’s possible they might feel pressured and/or uncomfortable in a face-to-face dialogue – so you could use walkie talkies or phones, including recording voicenotes. 

You could also make statements and they can give you thumbs up or thumbs down e.g. 'I wonder if you are feeling upset?' If you are really concerned and think your child needs to be talking about their feelings, it’s ok to seek professional help via counselling or play therapy for your child."

Heidi Soholt concluded "If your child doesn’t want to open up about their feelings, then respect this. They may not be ready, and by accepting this they are more likely to communicate in the future. Try to let them know this is okay, that you’re there for them when they want to talk."

Where to find more help on talking about feelings

  • Ivy's Library is a website for recommendations on books about feelings.
  • CAMHS has a page dedicated to signposting parents to websites that help children explore feelings around specific subjects.
  • Commonly used in schools, ELSA support has a range of free resources for parents to use at home, to help children find and validate their voice.
  • How To Talk To Kids About Anything is a podcast by Dr. Robyn Silverman, where she covers a range of topics, including talking to kids about their feelings.
  • Good Inside with Dr. Becky is a podcast from clinical psychologist and mother-of-three, Becky Kennedy. She tackles tough parenting questions and delivers actionable guidance.
  • Dr Becky also has over 2million followers on Instagram, sharing easily digestible reels on how to talk to kids about a range of feelings.
  • Catherine Hallissey is a child psychologist and mother-of-five. She shares top tips on Instagram relating to communicating with kids about a range of subjects.
  • Dr Jazmine is also a psychologist sharing expertise on all things parenting and communicating with children.

Toys to help calm a child before the conversation

Our experts

Kemi Omijeh
Kemi Omijeh

Kemi Omijeh is an experienced BACP registered psychotherapist and clinical supervisor who has worked with children and families for over 14 years. She is also a trainer, and speaker with her specialist subjects being cultural competence, racial identity, racial trauma and antiracist practices in education. Kemi champions inclusive mental health for children and young people, and states that support for young people should include a consideration of the child’s context, culture and identity. Kemi believes in preventing the onset of significant mental health difficulties in young people by fostering an environment that is child centred and fosters connection and belonging. It should also include supporting and equipping the adults that are in young people's lives. She works with organisations to support them to develop antiracist practices and a trauma informed approach. Kemi passionately believes that good mental health is the foundation for success across all areas of life. She has a special passion for and extensive experience working in schools, and with families. Kemi’s passion is normalising talking about mental health and ensuring we are all investing in our mental health as we would our physical health.

Therapist Heidi Soholt
Heidi Soholt

Heidi Soholt is a highly experienced BACP accredited psychotherapist who specialises in helping with children and adults overcome a wide range of issues - including anxiety, low self-esteem and peer difficulties. Heidi has a private therapy practice based in Stirling (Scotland) but also provides remote online support to clients worldwide. She is also a school counsellor and works with children aged 4 to 11. Heidi takes a child-centred, play based approach in order to support the children she works with. She also uses an integrated approach in her counselling - drawing on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Person-Centred and creative approaches. Heidi is also trained in EMDR.

If you're looking for open-ended questions, try this list of conversation starters with your child. We have helpful resources on talking about children's mental health, and some ideas for toys to support their mental health and wellbeing. 

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.