Is Your Child Okay? Gentle Ways To Support Their Emotional Well-Being
Young children have limited capacity to express their feelings verbally. How can we know how they’re doing and support their well-being effectively?
Getting children to talk about their feelings can be a big ask. It’s not because they’re stubborn. On the contrary, expressing emotions verbally is a learned skill, one that takes a good deal of maturation and practice. Let’s face it: even many adults aren’t great at talking about feelings!
Here are five strategies to help us support our children’s mental well-being:
Watch for behavioral changes
First and foremost, we need to get skilled at reading the nonverbal language of emotion. Instead of hearing how our children are feeling, we’re much more likely to observe it.
The most obvious sign of big feelings is of course “acting out,” by being physically or verbally aggressive. Children may show their feelings in other ways, too. Sometimes they’ll regress in physical milestones like toileting or become more clingy. Some children exhibit an about-face in their personality. An agreeable child might begin acting bossy or a rambunctious child suddenly becomes withdrawn.
All children have bad days, of course, and watching for patterns is more important than focusing on every little blip. When we see a child acting differently over a period of days, however, we know it’s time to take action – even if they repeatedly claim they’re “okay.”
Choose your moment wisely
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt University advises that timing is everything when we’re trying to support our children’s emotional health. “Do not try and practice when your child is in the middle of a “meltdown,” the Center writes. “Use quiet, calm times to teach and practice the new strategies.”
The emotional center of the brain – the amygdala – is in control when emotions are actively spilling out. We want to instead access the slow-to-develop frontal cortex – the seat of our rationality, impulse control and planning abilities – in order to get a genuine check in on how our child is doing and support their well-being. Importantly, the frontal cortex is only accessible in our child’s “cool” moments.
Be prepared for the nighttime release
Given that the frontal cortex works best when the emotional center of the brain is less active, it’s no surprise that bedtime tends to be when children spill stories about their day and mention – often in passing – things that are bothering them. Bedtime is predictable and, for most kids, associated with warmth and safety. In that moment, instead of battling their feelings, they can step back a tiny bit and reflect on them, to the extent that they have the developmental capacity to do so.
The challenge is that at bedtime we’re usually spent and ready to go to bed ourselves! There may be myriad tasks between us and sleep – packing lunches, returning emails, finishing work – and we’re in a rush to get on to those activities before we crash. Therefore, starting the bedtime routine fifteen minutes early to allow for space for talking about the day can be great practice for our children’s well-being as well as our own.
Use open-ended questions
Our children’s expression of what’s bothering them is likely to be rudimentary and you might have to fill in the gaps. For instance, a preschooler might simply say, “Charlie wanted to get on the swing when I was on it today.” Whether this sparked an incident between the child and Charlie is unclear. Whether it’s actually bothering your child is also unclear. But if they bring it
up, something may be brewing. Following up with open-ended questions like, “And then what?” and “What did you think about that?” can help the child piece a narrative together, and might give you some insight into what they’re feeling.
That said, you may never feel fully clear about the emotions underlying what they’re sharing. Counterintuitively, that doesn’t actually matter: the very act of expressing anecdotes from the day can be all the release our children need. Educational Playcare advises, “Often, your child just needs a chance to be heard while they express their feelings. Once they feel like they’ve been heard and understood, they will let go and move on.”
Engage in creativity together
If your child isn’t one to talk about feelings or you can sense your child is holding back, minimizing the chitchat may be the best strategy of all. Instead, do some parallel play with them, engaging in whatever creative tasks they love.
Maureen Healy writes in Psychology Today, “As a former art therapist, I found this the best way, bar none, to get kids talking about tough subjects: They begin to feel at ease by losing themselves into something they love like painting a birdhouse, playing with clay, completing a puzzle or strumming the guitar. Because when a child feels comfortable, and more at ease, they can open up about what’s on their mind. In other words, by entering into your child’s world and authentically connecting with them, they’ll feel safe and distracted enough to spill the proverbial beans.”
It’s invaluable to be aware of our children’s mental health by noticing changes in their patterns of behavior and making space for them to express themselves through words or actions. That said, professionals have the practiced tools to support a child who is struggling. If you’re seeing ongoing and/or notable changes in your child, be sure to consult their pediatrician, who can suggest appropriate resources for the situation at hand.