When Your Child Can’t or Won’t Talk About Their Feelings

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Whilst some children have a great understanding of what feelings are and how they feel in their body, others have very little insight.

Some children “shut down” when they’re upset, withdrawing or getting angry. It might be because they are overwhelmed or just don’t understand what is happening.

Don’t panic if your child won’t or can’t talk about their feelings.

In this article I’ll explain what you can do, as a child psychologist who has worked with children and teens for more than twenty years.

close up of ten year old boy closed body language and serious

Recognising Emotions

Your child won’t be able to talk about emotions in healthy ways if they can’t recognise them in the first place.

It’s not uncommon even for older teenagers not to be clear on what “happy” or “sad” or “angry” actually feels like. They may be able to recognise a happy face, angry or sad faces.

But what do these emotions actually feel like inside? And what has led to these feelings? Feelings may simply not be part of their vocabulary.

You may know people who are very intelligent in the traditional sense of the word but they are not skilled in understanding or expressing emotions.

They may even see expressing emotions as a sign of weakness.

In other words, they lack emotional intelligence.

But does it matter? Let’s take a look.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and respond to emotions and emotional cues in ourselves and others.

Understanding our own emotional state is part of emotional intelligence. If we don’t know how something makes us feel, we may make repeated mistakes by doing things that do not make us feel good, or are bad for our mental health.

If we know that negative feelings make us act in a certain way which we don’t like, we can pay attention to that pattern and do something about it the next time it happens.

For example, we can consciously change our body language, or give a different verbal response.

So having insight into our own emotions matters. Knowledge is power. If we know we are anxious, we can use strategies to manage it in the best way. It we don’t, we can’t.

Another element of emotional intelligence is knowing what to do about the emotion.

What is the best response in these circumstances?

What will get the desired outcome?

Instead of verbal aggression, temper tantrums, withdrawal or sulking, it might be:

  • Getting rid of the emotion e.g. by taking some kind of action.
  • Sitting with the emotion and waiting for it to pass.
  • Expressing the emotion creatively to help process and understand it. For example, creating a piece of art work.
  • Sharing the emotion with others to help them understand our point of view. (A problem shared is a problem halved.)
a mother and daughter in their kitchen chatting with a hot drink

Is Talking About Your Feelings Good For You?

In short, yes. Talking about your feelings is good for you.

When we have negative emotions or complex emotions, talking is a good way to unravel the complexity.

Putting it into words allows us to give labels to different feelings. This gives us a clearer picture of what’s going on in our heads.

Talking about feelings allows us to gain a sense of emotional competence.

Defining our feelings in words makes them more concrete.

We can then choose how to deal with them in rational and constructive ways, whereas previously they felt overwhelming or impossible to understand.

a teenage boy and his mother chatting whilst walking

Families That Don’t Talk About Their Feelings

Many of us (including me) come from families who didn’t talk about their feelings often. Perhaps we – parents – were not allowed to express emotions as a child.

It’s okay not to be “gushy” and always talking about feelings. That is, as long as there is an overall sense of warmth and nurture, and we are not deliberately suppressing feelings. We should never dismiss emotions.

The over-riding principle should be:

“We don’t need to express our feelings all the time, but the door is open whenever you do want to, and I will listen non-judgmentally to you.”

Are There Alternatives if Your Child Can’t or Won’t Talk About Their Feelings?

Yes, there are alternatives if your child has difficulty in expressing emotions in words. The most important thing is that your child has some outlet for their emotions, whether verbal or not.

As you will see, some of the strategies below involve alternatives to verbal emotional expression.

Expressing different emotions through drawing or music can be just as powerful as talking.

These strategies may be much easier for young children who don’t yet have the words for their emotions.

Other strategies below do involve talking, but not “free talking”.

It might be impossible for your child to tell you how they feel, without any prompts.

They may not yet have the skills.

But they can make a good start by drawing their bodily sensations on a body map, or starting to grade certain feelings using animals on a chart.

It is not healthy for a child not to have any understanding of their emotions at all. At the same time, it’s not something that children should automatically be good at.

It’s a process, and you can help them develop their skills.

Respect your child’s privacy if they don’t want to tell you the way they feel. There may be a good reason why they are not ready for this step.

But also remember that they may not be able to tell you how they feel because they don’t know.

The first step is to start from where they are.

Go at your child’s pace. If your child can’t identify their own complex emotions such as “bored”, “frustrated” or “overwhelmed”, perhaps they can draw where they sense it in their body when they feel “bad”.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Practical Strategies If Your Child Refuses to Talk When Upset

1. Bodily Sensations Map

Children and young people may find it less stigmatising (or simply easier) to describe physical sensations in their body.

Bodily sensations tend to correspond to particular emotions but it’s slightly different for everyone.

One anxious child with anxiety may feel strong sensations in their stomach, whereas another may notice tight muscles in their limbs.

This is a great way of teaching your child the connection between feelings and body sensations.

How to do it: Draw an outline of a body and place a mark or colour where it feels tight, hot, cold, or any other sensation.

When your child won't or can't talk about their feelings: example Sadie

2. Grading Your Child’s Feelings

Make a visual chart illustrating different levels of the emotion or emotional reaction you want to raise shared awareness of.

What are the signs/symptoms at each level? The emotion could be stress, anxiety, worry or any other difficult feelings.

For example:

Stress = my mind starts racing, my muscles tense up, I can’t focus.

Next, ask your child to choose a theme for their scale, such as animals. Here is an example:

  • Very calm (soft muscles, slow heart rate) = Elephant.
  • “A bit edgy” (muscles tense up) = Zebra.
  • Highly anxious (mind racing, I freeze) = Gazelle.

Equally, you could create a scale using emojis, colours or Harry Potter characters!

Encourage regular check-ins so your child can learn to spot which animal (or emoji, colour etc) they feel like. keep it low key. It can be as simple as a quick chat at the dinner table or whilst driving in the car.

I’m feeling a bit “gazelle” today.

OR

Yesterday was a zebra day and today I am more elephant.

Once your child has mastered the skill of identifying their animal, help them think about the most appropriate way to manage the emotion at each level.

For example, at the Zebra stage, what can I do to manage my edgy sensations?

Perhaps I can bounce on the trampoline or swing on the swing in my garden. This takes the edginess away.

If your child seems a long way from calmness, it can be less overwhelming for you when you realise all you need to do is take just one step at a time.

In other words, help your child move from gazelle to zebra, rather than from gazelle straight to elephant!

a mother comforting a six year old little girl

3. Emotions Cards

We have our very own emotions cards for you to print out, along with instructions for 3 great ways to use them.

The best thing about emotions cards is that they are fun.

You can also buy many different types online, such as this fun card game. Use these to play games and make learning about emotions lighthearted. You could even make your own set of cards together!

With emotions cards a child doesn’t need to have the ability to express feelings freely. But they can learn to identify and understand them with visual cues, which is a great first step.

Eventually this can lead to much deeper conversation about emotions and who to deal with them.

It’s so helpful for children to learn to identify good feelings as well as difficult feelings. When you know what makes you feel good, you can do more of that thing.

4. Emotionary

Emotionary is a book we use all the time in my clinic, Everlief, with kids of all ages.

It describes many complex emotions using words and pictures. It is brilliant to use as a basis for discussion.

Your child could also use it on their own to understand complex feelings. I suggest this book is for tweens and teens.

For younger children, the book Colour Me Happy is beautifully written and informative.

When your child won't or can't talk about feelings: Emotionary

5. Free Drawing: If Your Child Is Sad But Doesn’t Know Why

Encourage your child to draw exactly what their mind feels like.

For example:

  • It feels like a prison and I am inside.
  • My mind feels like a sticky bog.
  • My brain is like a wide open space and I am lost.

This can then form the basis for an open discussion (or not, if they don’t want to).

This kind of opportunity for expression is a good thing even if the expressed emotions are negative.

They create shared understanding of what your child is going through, whether these are good or bad things.

When your child can't or won't talk about their feelings: case example Jake's Mind

6. Code Words or Signals

Code words or signals agreed in advance will help children express strong emotions when it’s too difficult to use words.

These code words may help you teach your child vital skills.

Here are some examples:

  • Code Purple means “I am very on edge today, please give me space”.
  • Code blue means “I need help”.

If your child gives you a code blue, you may then take them through an agreed sequence of actions including sitting with them to take a slow, deep breath, followed by a soothing hug.

7. Music Playlist

Suggest your child creates a music playlist reflecting what their mind feels like.

Their music choices, if shared with you, may prompt deeper conversations, or they may simply use it as an aid to process their own feelings.

an eight year old boy relaxing and wearing headphones

Why is it Important For Children to Express Emotions?

If kids can identify and describe their own emotions, they are more likely to be able to spot the same emotions in others. They can express empathy for how another person is feeling. This is crucial for creating a meaningful connection with others.

Healthy relationships are not possible if emotions are poorly understood and kept inside. Children with poor emotional expression ability are more likely to have friendship problems. They are more likely to have relationship problems in later life.

Kids who can’t understand and manage their emotions in constructive ways are also more likely to have mental health problems. In particular they may be more likely to bottle up their feelings until they feel unbearable. This can contribute to self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Should I Be Worried If My Child Doesn’t Show Emotion

It’s natural for you to be concerned if you feel your child isn’t displaying emotions as other children might.

Firstly, it’s essential to understand that every child is unique, and their way of expressing emotions can differ.

Factors including temperament, environmental influences, and past experiences play a role in how emotions are shown.

There are several potential reasons for your child not showing emotion:

  1. Temperament: Some children are naturally more reserved or introspective.
  2. Coping Mechanisms: At times, your child might hide their big emotions as a coping strategy to deal with stress or trauma.
  3. Developmental Phases: Children go through different emotional developmental phases. What seems like a lack of emotion might just be a phase. For example, they may be feeling a brand new emotion that they are just beginning to understand.
  4. Neurodevelopmental Differences: Some children might have difficulty processing or expressing their emotional needs due to neurodevelopmental differences such as autism.

If you notice a new or persistent lack of emotional response, or if their behaviour seems to affect their social interactions or daily life negatively, it’s a good idea to consult with a paediatrician or child psychologist.

They can provide insights into whether there’s an underlying concern and offer guidance on supporting your child’s emotional growth.

In some cases a therapeutic approach like play therapy will be recommended, to help your child begin to understand and express emotions.

a father and young daughter chatting seriously

How To Get a Child To Open Up About Feelings

Figuring out how to get a child to open up about feelings can be slightly different for every child. Don’t force it. This may lead your child to shut down even further.

Your child needs to have a basic understanding of what emotions actually are, before they can express them.

If they don’t yet have this, work on this skill. For example, draw a blank diagram of the body and consider the bodily sensations associated with a particular emotion.

Also, be sure to talk about your own emotions and label them clearly. Talk about TV or book characters’ emotions.

Remember, there are seven suggestions above to help your child open up, which don’t rely solely on talking.

How To Get a Teenager To Talk About Their Feelings

Of course we want to know how to get our teenagers to talk about their feelings. We want them to feel heard and supported. The two top tips are:

1) Take the pressure off. Don’t “sit down for a talk”. More frequent, shorter chats – for example in the car – are going to yield much better results.

2) You need to consistently build trust and a positive relationship, in order for them to share their deepest feelings with you. If the bond isn’t there, they won’t share, so work on this first.

Remember though, that at this age they may be talking to other people about their feelings instead of us. This can feel like a rejection and it can feel upsetting to be left out of the loop.

However, teenagers are learning to become independent from us, and they have a private life. They may be talking to friends or romantic partners about their feelings more than their parents. The main thing is that they are sharing how they feel with someone.

close up of a happy teenage girl

At What Age Do Children Talk About Feelings?

Whilst many children can understand basic emotions at age 2, for many others this skill develops much later, and even into adulthood.

If your child has difficulty expressing emotions or understanding them, try not to compare them with others.

All brains are different, and for some children emotional understanding doesn’t come naturally.

Why Is My Child Emotionally Detached?

There are two main reasons why children may appear emotionally detached. The first is that they haven’t yet learned to identify emotions within themselves and express them or respond accordingly.

The second reason is if your child has experienced childhood trauma. This could be anything from school bullying to sexual abuse. Your child may have put up a protective emotional barrier because the feelings they had seemed too overpowering and scary.

There are other reasons why your child may appear detached. A lot of times this will be closely related to the two reasons above. Every child is unique.

Why Does My Child Shut Down When Upset?

One of the reasons a child might shut down if they are upset is because they simply don’t know how to deal with the emotion. They don’t have the skills or experience.

There are so many possible ways of reacting.

This may overwhelm them and cause them to appear to shut down.

Another possible reason for shutting down when upset is if they have had a difficult experience in the past.

For example, if they showed that they were upset in front of others, and were mocked for it, or someone else’s reaction escalated their feelings rather than helping to contain them.

Summary: When Your Child Won’t or Can’t Talk About Their Feelings

Talking is one of the most effective ways to process and understand feelings. It is important to understand our feelings so that we can learn from them.

But talking about feelings isn’t achievable for all children.

Some children are unable to put the feelings directly into words.

There are many other creative options to help with your child’s feelings. These options may help your child share their emotions with you, with a friend or relative, or simply to reflect by themselves.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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