Talking to children about feelings

If you’re worried about a child, encouraging them to talk can be very helpful, whether you're a parent, grandparent, friend or teacher.

If you think a child you know has a problem, it can be hard to know how to start talking to them about it. When there are problems at home, such as parents fighting or divorcing or a death in the family, children can become withdrawn and upset.

Being able to talk to someone other than a parent is sometimes very helpful for children. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers or even a counsellor can all offer support.

Peter Wilson, a child psychotherapist for children’s counselling charity ThePlace2Be, shares his top strategies, whether you’re a worried parent, relative, family friend or teacher. 

Watch your children play

Children express themselves through play as well as words. You can learn a lot about how they're feeling by simply spending time with them and watching them play. Stressed and upset children often play fighting games with their toys. Comment on this by saying, "There are a lot of fights going on," or "It seems pretty frightening." This can help to get them talking about what’s bothering them.

Even if you don’t start a conversation, you'll be making the child feel more comfortable with you, paving the way for them to open up to you about their problems.

If you can get them talking, gently ask what’s wrong. But if the child doesn’t want to open up, let the subject go, then repeat the process at another time, until they're ready to tell you what’s bothering them.

If a child is too frightened to talk

If you're worried that a child you know might be being abused at home, it can help to ask a question like, "Is mummy getting very cross with you? You can tell me about it if you want to." A child might not understand that they're being abused. They may simply see it as a parent being angry or annoyed with them.

Children will often ask if you're going to tell anyone about what they’ve told you. Never promise not to tell, but explain that you'll only tell other people who want to help. If you suspect abuse, encourage them to call ChildLine (0800 1111), or ring the NSPCC yourself (0808 800 5000) and get advice about how to report it. 

'Children are aware that they're behaving badly. It’s important to find out why, and reinforce the message that it's unacceptable'

If a child is aggressive or misbehaving

If a child is fighting or being aggressive, they're doing it for a good reason, and talking may help you to discover the reason.

Start by telling the child that their bad behaviour is unacceptable and why, for example because it will harm other people or get them into trouble. Then offer them the chance to talk about why they're angry.

This might not work instantly because an angry child might not listen to you straight away. Don’t give up. Children are aware when they're behaving badly, and it’s important to find out the reasons why, as well as reinforcing the message.

If your child is grieving

Young children don’t always understand what death means. It helps to explain it by saying, ‘Nana’s died. She’s not going to be with us any more.'

Watch children carefully if someone close to them has died. If they seem tearful or withdrawn, encourage them to open up about how they're feeling by talking about the person who's died. You could say something like, ‘It’s very sad that Nana has died’ or ‘I feel sad that Nana has died, and sometimes it’s hard to understand why people die.'

If you’re still worried about your child

If you are still concerned about your child after talking to them, see your GP for further advice.

Page last reviewed: 22/07/2014

Next review due: 22/07/2016


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 5 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User492629 said on 12 May 2014

I really think there are too many child psychologists and psychiatrists They seem to be turning NORMAL childish behaviour into a disorder needing drugs to fix it.. No one understands a child better than their parents and children deserve the right to grow up naturally without constant psychoanalysis . Children need to be told it is normal to have feelings and emotions which it is!!!.
The current trend of drugging children for behavioural problems is very unhealthy and dangerous . Some of the drugs being used are lethal. It is not the answer.
Children can sometimes push parents to the limit but they will grow out of it with lots of love and patience
I really do not agree with drugging young children and hope the Uk NHS bans it soon in favour of safer forms of help

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

speedy579 said on 04 July 2013

Don't feel bad, blame yourselves or think up excuses for odd behavior, get a professional opinion, children problems escalate during teenage years and then cause disruption with learning and exams etc seek help and advice while your children are young so that schools and teachers understand behavior problems. Teachers are not taught enough about children's mental health. I think everybody should be made more aware of it and even teaching it in schools. If you think a child's behavior is odd act on it.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

gillc78 said on 16 February 2013

I don't know it anyone can help but my partner and I are a bit concerned about a behaviour our 11 year old son as shown lately. While he's watching TV he will frequently shift his eyes to looking at the ceiling or top corner above the TV then back to the TV. It happens numerous times during whatever he is watching, we're not sure if he knows he does it but one of our other children noticed and asked him why he does it, to which he replied embarrassed that he doesn't do it. Has anyone ever heard of or experienced this before?

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Stepchildren help said on 25 August 2008

My partners daughter is 8 and is constantly seeking 100% attention from both of us, she cry's when we speak to each other, if it is not about her, she cannot stand us even holding hands. she does not live with us, but we see her fortnightly, and we take her away at least 3 weeks each year, we are due to be married at the end of the year, and she is very involved with everything that we are doing, but still says she doesnt feel important, she has everything from us and we tell her all the time how important she is to us, and that things will not change when we are married,
but we still get the crying every night she is with us, and the reason she says is she doesnt feel important. she sulked when she saw my grandchildrens picture on my phone, and thought it should have been her.
we have both spoken to her and told tried to put her mind at rest, she says ok then, when she goes to bed she wants her dad to lie on her bed with her until she goes to sleep, or she kicks off. we are at our wits end with it, dont know what we can do, as she is getting worse, and we talk to her constantly, does anyone have any ideas what else we can try? as we have tried the comments above.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Noname said on 05 June 2008

This never worked for my child. . . .
She's always depressed

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Services near you

Find addresses, phone numbers and websites for services near you

Helping with homework

Three parents share their practical tips on how to help children tackle homework

Dealing with child anger

Clinical psychologist Shreeta Raja gives advice on how to help your child deal with their anger in a positive way

How much sleep does your child need?

Find out how much sleep your child needs, covering the first 16 years of life.

Is your child depressed?

Spot the warning signs of depression in children and teenagers, and see what help is available

Your child's safety

The vast majority of adults would never harm a child, but it's still important to keep your child safe and be aware of the possible dangers

Talking to your child about their autism

Dr Glòria Durà-Vilà explains why it's important for a child to learn about their autism diagnosis from a parent in a safe environment

Bereavement and young people

Advice and support to help you get through the loss of someone important to you

Child sexual exploitation

How to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation, and what to do if you suspect it