Helping Children Talk about Difficult Topics


One of the most interesting aspects of working as a child, versus an adult, psychologist is the fact that children don't normally decide to come to therapy.

And furthermore, they often don't want to talk about the topics that parents or others think they should be talking about.  

As a professional working with children yourself, you probably know very well the experience of talking to a child who doesnt really want to talk about something.

Working with kids to try to help them communicate about difficult topics is an important skill for us.  Here are three things we should remind ourselves of when doing this - and a few things to try.

3 things to know about kids "not talking" 

1. It's quite normal for some children to not be interested in discussing difficult topics.  

Ask child a question about a traumatic event, a worry, an argument they had with a friend or a difficult behaviour - and frequently they will change the topic, move away, get distracted or ignore us.  They often just don't want to talk about it.

It's useful for us as professionals to think about why this is.

Sometimes it is because the child is not as concerned about the situation as we as adults are.  
Sometimes this is because the child doesn't know how to talk about it - or is finding it difficult to find the words to express themselves.  
Sometimes this is because the child feels anxious or uncomfortable talking about the situation (ie, perhaps they don't want to upset someone, or perhaps they are worried about getting in trouble).   

If the child is capable, at times I might address this some of this directly.  I might say things like:

"How much (on a scale from 1-10) are you worried about this/do you think this is a problem, when 10 is a huge problem/worry and 1 is not a problem/worry at all?"
"If you talk about this with me, will something bad happen do you think?"
"I know lots of kids feel a bit anxious when they talk about this.  Do you feel a bit uncomfortable talking about this?"
"Some kids feel like talking about X is kind of a boring thing to do.  What do you think?"

Regardless, it's very normal for kids to want to avoid sitting and talking - and to prefer to play, watch videos or game than talk about a difficult situation.  

2. Children don't always really need to talk about it difficult situations.  

It's also important to know that sometimes "it's okay" for children not to talk about difficult situations.  Adults often worry that children are not "processing" something because they are not talking about it.  However unlike adults, kids don't always need to use words to cope with difficult situations.  Sometimes they can effectively work through emotions and tell adults important stuff via playing.  It's not the case that children must talk to "sort things through".   Sometimes we can just let it go.

At these times, we might work with parents/carers instead.  Or we might reassure the child that if they do want to talk about the situation, we will listen.

"You might find that you have some questions about this topic one day.  Or you might find there are things you would like to say about this topic, maybe to tell me some feelings you have or maybe to tell me something you wish was different.  If you want to ever ask me a question, or tell me about your feelings, you can just draw a picture of X, put a note in my drawer, send me an email (insert whatever sign the child can use to indicate they want to talk).

3. However at other times - children do need to talk with us.  

There are some times when children do need to spend some - at least short periods of - time talking to adults about difficult situations.  

For example, sometimes we need to talk to kids in order to teach them something.
Sometimes we need to talk to kids to find out some details about something.
Sometimes we need to talk with children when they are clearly struggling to manage a situation.  

In these cases, talking helps them learn, helps us help them - and gives us information we need.  In other words - and I say this to kids - "part of the job of learning to be a big kid/learning to be an adult, is doing some talking about tricky topics"

In this case, even though we might need to make some short communication a "no choice" activity for children in some situations, we want to do it in a way which is as easy and painless as possible.

Here are 5 tricks to try to help children talk about difficult topics.

1. Make the conversation and statements short and questions easy to answer

Kids' attention spans are much shorter than ours.   They get bored quickly!  To make it less painful, we can tell children we will be as fast as we can, for example:

"I know you don't really want to talk about this, but I need to have a quick chat with you about it.  Let's put the timer on and just do 6 minutes and then you can go play."

In addition, in "talking with children" we should emphasise the asking of questions rather than the talking.  We need to use short sentences and say less than we think we need to.  I know I've said this in other articles, but research on "master therapists" for example indicate that they use at least a 3:1 (if not a 4 or 5:1) ration of questions to statements.  

We also need to make questions easy to answer.  "Either/or" questions are a great start, or questions on a scale (see below).

2. Less eye contact

It's important not to force children to be looking at us in a conversation about a difficult topic. I will often give children something else to look at to make the conversation more fun and relaxed for them.

For example, I've had some great conversations with children who are using fiddle toys while talking to me, while drawing or building blocks.  

And the best conversations happen while I'm also using a fiddle toy, stapling documents or drawing too.  Providing children know we care and are listening, doing something while they are talking sometimes helps them feel more relaxed.

3. Use visuals

A third way to help children talk is to use visual objects, diagrams, graphs or props to help them explain themselves.  This helps them to be able to communicate more clearly, helps them understand what we are asking and makes it more fun.

For example, I often use a scale from one to ten (how worried are you about this right now) or with different faces on it (point to which emotion face was most like yours today), with people on it (let's draw your friends' faces - now which person did you have the most fun with this week/who did you feel most nervous with).  

I will also often use puppets, figurines and dolls (let's pretend you are this one, and she was this one - you say what she said and I will say what you said) 

I'll also frequently use drawings - not just as a way to give kids the option of less eye contact, but also as a way they can explain themselves to me (hey, here are three boxes - draw what happened first in this box, and then what happened next in this box)

4. Make communication game based

Another way to make communication easier is to turn it into a simple game.  

This doesn't have to be elaborate or time consuming.

For example, I will often spend two seconds roughly drawing a ladder on scrap paper, opening an online dice web page - and getting children to roll the dice, answer a question, and then roll the dice and answer another question - until they get to the end of the ladder.  

I might find a container and rip up paper with questions on it to put in the container and take turns in taking them out.  

I might use a ball to throw back and forth between us in taking turns to answer questions.  

I might get the child to draw a tick every time they give me a detail about a situation - and put them all in a circle to see how many details we can get until the circle is full.

Often I will ask the child to help me come up with rules about these "games" to do with the topic we are talking about.  It's amazing how creative kids can be, and how much this helps the conversation flow.

Again, these conversations can still be only 5 minutes long - it doesn't take long to make a game out of a conversation.  And powerful conversations can happen quickly.

5. Intersperse conversations with more "fun" activities

In the clinic I will almost always use a timer to use to help children stay motivated on "working" with me.  We will set 10 minutes of "working" and then 3 minutes of youtube/ gaming/reading/playing indoor soccer (depending of course on the age of the child and their interests).    

The most important step?

Using these strategies can help children be a little less reluctant to talk and help them to practice important communication skills.  Of course, the most important way to help children communicate with us is to make sure we act in kind, trust-worthy and caring ways - and be patient - with them and with ourselves.


What teachers/counsellors/youth workers can do to help teens at risk of self harm/suicidality

A sad and tragic fact of our world in 2017 is this:  the most common cause of death for young people is suicide (see Australian Bureau of Statistics Leading Causes of Death report, 2015). While this data is somewhat misleading for the simple reason that young people don't die very often (and also important to know that death by suicide is more common in adults than in young people) - it is still distressing and worrying. This is especially true when we know that rates of deliberate self harm and attempted suicide is higher in young people than in any other age group.

For teachers, psychologists, counsellors and youth workers this is unfortunately all too familiar. We frequently work with young people struggling with suicidal thoughts and who self harm - to keep them safe, increase hopefulness and positive mood, decrease the frequency of their self harm and prevent suicide.

There are a range of strategies we can use with young people to do these things, depending on the young person and our relationship with them.

However, in this post, I'm just going to focus on TWO other potentially very important strategies which I believe are worth some extra exploration.

Here's the first:

1. We should do everything we can to help teens be connected with a peer group.

While there are many factors which are associated with an increase in depression, self harm and suicide attempts - there is one clear protective factor which research studies consistently find is associated with well-being in teens:  positive interpersonal relationships.  

Here's what we know:  teens with better relationships with their peers and other adults are less likely to experience depression and self harm and more likely to recover from episodes of depression and stop self harming.

This means almost anything we can do to help teens to feel more connected to their peers is likely to be useful. This might mean:

* Actively intervening when persistent conflict and bullying occurs.  Teens often don't have the skills to "handle" persistent peer conflict or bullying themselves.  Often we need to help.  This might mean:

Role playing conflict resolution conversations with the teen
Helping the teen to do perspective taking/role playing exercises taking two different sides of a situation
Helping the teen to practice assertive statements and body language with us
Starting a process of mediation or restorative justice
Helping the young person to find safe and secure places to be (including off-line mini holidays)
Working with the young person to help them see conflict as common, and with an "end point"
Helping the young person take small steps (possibly including those taken online) to connect with a new peer group where necessary

* Actively working towards teenagers having social contact in general.  For many teens there might not be any apparent conflict or bullying - but instead the teen is just withdrawn and isolated.

This is a significant problem.  

Teens need friends to maintain good emotional health.  As professionals we need to be on the lookout for and working with isolated teens to help them find these connections - because young people are often not capable of doing this themselves.

By the way, young people don't reliably report being isolated or disconnected from their peers.  There is such a social cost to admitting this (either to themselves, or to another person) that we have to "dig" pretty hard to find it sometimes.  I will often ask young people for the names of friends, and when (or the topic of) was the last conversation they had with them - to get a more accurate measure of the level of social connection in teens.

As professionals we need to then look at the reason for the social isolation (typically these reasons fall into categories of ability - can't do it; motivation - don't want to do it - which could be for reasons of anxiety management or depression).  When we know what the reason for the social isolation, we can then chip away at this and work towards improving social connection.  It's not easy, but we might be doing things like:

  • Working with parents/carers to help them encourage/enforce some opportunities
  • Setting social goals for teens (these might be tiny - eg one "like" on a social networking page, or one "hi" as they walk past another friend)
  • Practising initiation of conversation, greetings and suggesting activities
  • Thinking about how young people can manage their anxiety

    Incidentally, I talk with parents about the fact that having a job or doing at least one extra curricular should be a non negotiable for all teens. Just like we insist that our teens eat some kind of vegetables and at least look at homework every now and then - we need to be insistent that they spend time working towards finding friends.  Of course this is NOT easy for some teens who don't "fit" or who are resistant.  But it is something we have to keep talking about, working on, creating opportunities for and often - parents have to make some tiny steps towards this as "no choice" activities.  Just like the veggies.

* Connecting teens with other adults.  Another way of increasing the quality of interpersonal relationships for young people is to help them be connected to positive adult role models.

As professionals we might be looking at how we help them resolve conflict with parents, spend more time with coaches, GPs, adult neighbours, aunts/uncles or friends of the family.  

However we do it, working gradually and persistently at helping teens have better peer and adult relationships is one of the most important steps we can take when young people are down.

Here's a second important strategy:

2. We need to help teens learn strategies to cope when they are feeling agitated, stressed, hopeless and overwhelmed

A long time ago, one of the regular conversations I would have with self harming and suicidal teens was a "safety contract" conversation.  Essentially this meant I asked the young person to make a commitment to stay safe and not hurt themselves until the time of the next session.  

Unfortunately research shows that safety contracts do not work well (Lewis, 2007).

When young people are feeling agitated, hopeless and overwhelmed - even if they want to stick to a promise - they may be unable to.  

What works more effectively is to help young people know, practice and plan for what to do when they feel like hurting themselves.

Sometimes this means having a conversation with teens to help them write down what they will and won't do when they feel really down.  

The best tool I've found for this is the Beyond Blue safety planning tool.   I've included a link to this at the bottom of this article.  This page allows people (young and old) to think about what triggers their hopelessness/desire to hurt themselves and what they will do when this occurs. Teachers, counsellors and any responsible adult - can do this in the room with a teenager with self harm or suicidal thinking in about 15 minutes.  We can do it online by just clicking on the link, or have the young person download the (free) app on their phone and use that.  It's also a good way to find out more about triggers and protective factors.

Alternatively you can take ask young people these questions (take notes when they answer):

  • What 3 or 4 situations or times of day do you often feel the worse in?
  • What short sentences can you say to yourself at those times which help you focus on a positive future or why things aren't as dark as they seem?
  • What mental or physical activities can you do at those times to keep your mind busy?
  • Who can you be around at those times which help you be distracted from your hopelessness?
  • At those times of hopelessness/desire to hurt yourself - what should you NOT do (ie what makes you feel worse?)
  • At those times of hopelessness/desire to hurt yourself - how can you take things out of your environment so you don't have easy access to ways of hurting yourself?
  • Who can you call/message/email/ask for help from at those times?

Write down what they say (help them with ideas if necessary) and take a photo of it and send it to their phone.

As well as doing a written safety plan with young people, as professionals we should also be slowly but consistently working on making sure they actually have this range of activities, relationships and supports which they can call on, as well as knowing how they can cope with distress.   We need to be sharing with teens about how other young people cope with sad, hopeless and tough times.  We need to be asking them what works for them - or what they've seen other people do.   We might even share (carefully) what we do.

Again this is not easy because many teens are resistant to this work and these conversations. However, it's such a vital part of keeping teens safe that it shouldnt be entirely up to them as to whether they do it or not.


If you are concerned about a young person, seek help straight away.  Talk with a supervisor, call mental health services in your state - if you have no-one to call, feel free to email me directly at

And then where you can, work with young people on these two activities:  

1) Work hard at improving their social connections and;

2) Help young people identify ways to cope with feeling hopeless and sad - and help them practice these, and build systems to be reminded of them when they need them

All the best in this important work.  If you would like know more about how we support professionals who work with kids and teens, click here.

Best wishes


Work with kids and teens?  Click here for more information and support.

How professionals can help forgetful kids

We all know those kids and teens who seem to *particularly* struggle with organisation, forgetfulness and concentration.

"Gemma, where's your homework book?"
"I can't find it!!"
"Isn't it in your drawer?"
"I don't know!  
"When did you have it last?"
"I don't know that either!"
*Cue internal adult sigh*

We see these kids/teens in the classroom, deal with them in the therapy room and some of us even have them at home!

Forgetful children/teens are often hard to take. It doesnt seem to matter how much we remind them, nag them and stay on them - they lose focus, forget things and sometimes don't even seem to care.  They can leave us (and their parents/carers/teachers/therapists) feeling completely exasperated.

A lot of forgetful children and teens DO improve their attention, concentration and memory skills as they get older, in the meantime, here are some things we can do.

Think about the last time a child or teen lost something or didn't have something they needed and ask yourself these three questions.

1.  Did the child/teens know the "home" spot for that possession?  

Designated places for important items are essential.  Not a range of places, but one (two at the most) places, and often a "Never here" spot can be useful too.  For example:

School jumpers are either in the draw or in the wash (and never in the school bag overnight),
Electronic items are being used or sit on the red table (never on the floor) 
Glasses are in the case or one the book cupboard (never outside unless on your head)

- and so on.

Some younger child can benefit from matching stickers which go on both the object and it's "home spot" to designate a place for these items to be kept when not being used.  

Teenagers can be involved in discussions about where appropriate "Home" spots and "Never" spots should be for various items.

2. Does the child/teen have one designated time of day (or week) when they are supposed to put that possession in their "home" spots?

It's not enough that there is a home spot for important items, there also has been a regular time, system or routine when the possession is put in the home spot.  

For example:

As soon as you get home from school (before screens, before food, before play), your school hat goes in the hat box.  
Before you leave for recess, you check that you have your book on your desk for reading time afterwards.
Monday morning lesson 1, everyone opens their diary and checks assignments due.
Just before bed, you check your glasses are in the glasses case.  
Before you leave for school, you set your device on charge at the charging station.

It's important that these routines are very specific.  The idea "when you have finished with something, put it away" is a great idea in theory, and one to work towards - but kids with memory, attention and concentration problems need more specific routines than this.

2. Does the child/teens have systems and visual cues which remind them to actually follow through with the "putting away in home spot" task at that designated time?

For some kids, it's not enough to just have a spot, and it's not even enough to just have a "time for things to be put in their spot" - they need a visual prompt or routine to get them to put their things in their home spot at the designated time and to make sure they are not in their "never" spots.  

For example:

Monday mornings I will have a note on the board:  "Diaries open"

To help you remember to put your hat in your hat box when you get home, we will put a note on the door which says:  Hat in Hat Box. I want you to write a list to take home, which you put near your front door - and it will include:  is my device on charge for the day.

Finally, kind - to yourself and to them.....

In summary, we want to help children and teens to have:

1) Home and never spots, 

2) A designated time to return items to home spots,

3) Reminders/prompts to help them remember and motivate themselves to shift items out of never spots and into home spots at their designtated times.

These three things do help forgetful, absent minded children/teens enormously.  It's far more effective than just nagging them to "concentrate" or "get organised!"

However, it's not a magic cure.  Teaching children/teens to be less forgetful is a massive, long term task.  It takes these kids until adulthood (and even some - not then!) to conquer these skills.  This is not their fault - it's not because they are bad kids/teens, and it's not our fault either.

Sometimes we just have to take a deep breathe, realise that every thing forgotten is an opportunity to tighten up a system, be kind to ourselves in our exasperation (this sucks.  It sucks for me and for them)  and start again.

Good luck

Working with kids and teens? Three words to say to yourself.

Some kids and teens get upset a lot - more than the average child/teen.

They get REALLY mad when things are unfair, outraged when their plans are thwarted, really stressed when they have small responsibilities, anxious about how other people think about them and sad about life.

As a professional who works with kids or teens you probably already know that there are many different ways we can help young people deal with difficult emotions - depending on the situation, their age and how much time we have!  

But often, an excellent first step in a classroom or therapy room - is to say three magic words to ourselves.

What are these magic words?  They are these:
Not My Responsibility.

As professionals, it is not our responsibility to fix or solve the problems which cause kids and teens distress.  

It's not our responsibility to make life okay for "big feelings" kids and teens.
It's not our responsibility to make sure they succeed.
It's not our responsibility to make them happy, well behaved and content.

It IS our responsibility as professionals to:

  • Care for them through their struggles
  • Be empathic,
  • Coach and teach skills to help them deal with these struggles
  • Provide some structure to their lives - so we can help them learn to live meaningful lives.  
  • Work as hard and effectively as we can to help families problem solve
  • Get support and ongoing training in this important work.

But that doesnt mean we are responsible for fixing families' distress or their problems.  Let me say this one more time, when kids and teens are upset - it is NOT our responsibility to fix it.

I think I've probably said it enough, but just in case I'm misinterpreted, let me clarify again that I don't mean we don't offer our young people empathy when they are distressed - actually, on the contrary, I think empathy is vital.  We need to say, as often as possible, things like:  I'm sorry you feel like this.  That sounds tough.  I'm sorry you are so frustrated/upset/worried about this.

I actually believe that often when we are clear that it is not our responsibility to fix kid's/teen's problems, it's easier to be empathic.  

And then we need to go on to think about what the missing skills are in this child/teen, and to work towards teaching them this.  We need to think about what else we can do to support and help the young person cope.

But it's not our responsibility to make them happy or to remove distress.

Try it yourself and see how it feels for you:  next time you are working with a child/teen and they come to you in anger, frustration, sadness, worry or stress - silently say to yourself "not my responsibility" before you do anything else - and see how it feels.

And by the way...this is true for upset/distressed parents too.  Our responsibility to be empathic, coach, support - not our responsibility to fix their distress either.

Questions to ask parents/carers of kids with "big feelings"


"Kids with big feelings" is a phrase I sometimes use to describe children who have a tendency to get more frustrated, worried, embarrassed, hurt and sad than other children their age.  I use this phrase because it avoids negativity and reflects the fact that these kids are often also particularly creative, joyful and hilarious fun!

If you work with children with "big feelings" you know that they can test their parents/carers' resources and frustration.   It's a tough job for these people.  And unlike most other "jobs", they get no training, time for reflection, formal planning processes or team building days...nope, they just have to do the best they can on the fly.

Sometimes this works out okay.  

However if we can help parents and carers do some time for reflection and planning - then their job is often easier. 

If you work with these parents, you might like to ask whether they would be prepared to do an exercise with you where you ask them the questions listed below.

(If you don't work with them directly, perhaps you might send them to them in a handout/email of some kind for them to use themselves) 

19 questions for parents/carers

What were the best things about how you were parented when you were a child?
What were the worst things about how you were parented?
When do you feel most guilty as a parent?
When do you feel proud as a parent?
What would you like to do differently (if anything) with X child?
What would you like to do differently (if anything) with Y child?
Is there anything your friends/partners do or say with X or Y child which you have thought useful/appreciated?
How do you feel about how you are handling issues with child X's frustration and anger?
Is there anything else you think you could do to help him/her with it?
How do you think you are handling issues with child/'s X's worry or anxiety?
Is there anything else you think you could do to help him/her with it?
How do you feel about the way you manage sleep/bedtimes?
How do you feel about the way you manage issues related to homework?
How do you feel about the way you manage issues related to getting along with siblings/other kids?
How do you feel about the way you manage issues related to getting along with jobs/chores?
What are the things that make you angriest/most frustrated in dealing with child X?
Is there anything others could do to help you feel calmer?
What activities or situations do you most enjoy with child X/Y?  Is there anything that could be done to help that occur more often?
What skill would you most like child X/Y to learn this year?  How could you/we help him/her learn that skill?

Remember there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions.  It's just the asking of them (leading to thinking, planning) which is most beneficial.


17 question options to ask gaming/online video “addicted” kids and teens - to help them reflect

As a professional who works with kids and teens you will know many families who struggle with issues related to gaming and technology use.  You will certainly know plenty of children/teens who are *desperate* to be non stop gaming/watching online video this school holidays.  You will also know many parents who have lectured their kids/teens about the need for a balance of activities until they are exhausted and who frankly want to throw all i-devices/gaming consoles off the edge of the nearest roof.

Thousands of kids and teens all over this country this school holidays are spending hours each day gaming.  It’s not surprising. As a society we’ve introduced a set of humans with partially formed brains (and willpower skills) to a highly addictive, satisfying and fascinating activity and naturally enough they are having trouble turning it off.

But of course we know that it’s not healthy for young people to be on screens 24/7.  But if they can’t limit their own use - this means parents and carers have to take charge.  But this is tough too. Dealing with technology use for parents can be exhausting, worrying, constant and tiring.  

There are many strategies to help kids and teens with their tech use.  Positive communication is at the foundation however of all the most successful strategies.  Of course, communication is easier said than done. One of our tasks as professionals is to help parents/carers to communicate well with their young people around this issue.

Below I've listed 17 questions which – if asked compassionately and at the right time (ie not when they’ve just lost the last Clash of Clans round or are stomping around about not being allowed to be on screens like “all of their friends”) – may increase positive communication about the issue.  I've found them most useful myself.

You might like to try these questions out with kids/teens you work with - and then send them on to parents you work with and see if it helps in some small way.


  • What do you think you learn /what skills do you improve from your gaming/watching online video?  What areas of your brain do you feel are working?
  • (Hint - If they say “I don’t know”, ask about hand eye co-ordination, problem solving, visual scanning of the environment, reaction time/speed, reading skills, ability to work in a team etc). 
  • Do you think these skills help you in other areas of life?
  • Does your gaming/watching online video make it easier to relate to other kids/teens who you know from school?  Why or why not?
  • Does your gaming/watching of online video use help you be a better friend in some ways?  Why or why not?
  • What areas in particular do you find fun/do you like about your gaming/watching of online video?
  • Would you explain the way your favourite game works to me? 
    (Hint – if the child/teen gives you a three word reply, gently press for one or two more details.  Eg - What is the aim of the game?  What kinds of strategies are used?  What are the mistakes people make in playing this game? What levels are you up to)
  •  Can you tell me about your favourite you-tuber/online video channel? (Hint – if the child/teen gives you a brief reply, gently press for one or two more details.  Eg-where do they come from?  Why are they successful when others aren’t?  What is funny about it?  Where did you learn about this?)
  • What three non-gaming/non-tech activities do you most like to do?(Hint, if the child/teen has difficulty answering, then change question to…”If you really had to do some activities which didn’t involve gaming, tell me three which you would do?”
  •  Are there any non gaming/video watching activities someone could do with you/or help you get started on/help you set up which you would enjoy?  Any others?  Any others?
  • In your opinion, if your friends were on their devices for every moment they were awake this school holidays, what would be bad about this? (Hint – if you get resistance at this point, back off.  It’s also okay to make suggestions – eg imagination, longer term concentration skills, reading skills, how it affects people around you – and see what they think)
  • If your family were going to set up a schedule for the next week only about what times of the day/night you would and wouldn’t game – what do you think is reasonable?
  • If your family were going to set up a schedule for the next week only about how long (how many minutes/hours) you would and wouldn’t game each day/week – what do you think is reasonable?
  • What do your family thinks or feels about your gaming/video watching? (Hint – if child/teen suggests they feel negatively about it then go on to ask - Does that bother you – and if so, why?)
  • Would you like adults to be more interested in your gaming/what you are watching – and ask you more questions?  Why or why not?
  • Do you know what adults' concerns are about your gaming/video watching?  If so, what are they?  How much do you agree with each concern?
  • What don’t adults understand about why it’s hard for you to turn off gaming/video watching?
  •  Is there anything I or others can do to help you cope better when you have to stop gaming/watching video?
  • What are the things you do (or say to yourself) which help you be less upset when you have to stop gaming/watching video? 

"Moodiness" in kids and teens

ne of the shocks for parents of the 9 plus age group is how frequently their kids get irritable, sad, stressed and "moody".  

Many of those parents remember how their younger kids were happy-go-lucky much of the time.  Sure, they'd still get upset at times - if they didn't get what they wanted or had a fight with their siblings, or had to do chores - they might have a meltdown - but there were three differences:

1. As parents they knew what was wrong
2. There was a clear stressor and after it was over (and the chores done/fight resolved) they returned to being their cheerful/high spirited selves. 
3. It was easier for parents to help them feel better.  (The promise of an ice-cream/extra story/trip to the beach would usually put a smile on their face.)

But suddenly their children aren't like this any more.

  • They act irritably for no obvious reason.
  • They seem overly upset about things which didn't use to upset them
  • They might "sulk" or take a long time to get over things
  • Things/situations which used to provide them great pleasure no longer make them happy
  • They can't "fix" it with the promise of a treat/fun activity

What parents often don't realise is that the kids themselves are just as shocked and dismayed at their bad moods.

As professionals working with preteen children, we need to explain to them three important things.

First, we need to explain to them that most of the time, these negative moods does not mean there is anything seriously wrong with them.  In this age of more mental health awareness, some children start to google and self diagnose depression and worry it will get worse.

Second, we need to tell kids that their bad moods are actually the result of them getting smarter, and having more powerful brains.  We need to tell them, that as humans, as we get older, we get more agile and powerful brains.  This means we are more capable of:

Evaluating life negatively
Comparing ourselves negatively to others
Thinking about what might go wrong in the future
In addition, we have had more exposure to situations as we get older - which means we get less excited about various things that used to have novelty value.

Third, we need to tell growing kids that there's good news too.  Preteens and teens growing brains are ALSO capable of additional good moods compared to when they were younger.  These good moods come from situations like:

Being more able than younger children to take great joy in their achievements
Being better able to look further ahead into the future and have a sense of hope about what is coming up for them
Being capable of developing deeper friendships and romantic relationships - and deriving joy and satisfaction from these things
Feeling grateful for what they have (okay, this one takes a little longer,and a little more training - but it does come!)

So the positive moods will come around for preteens - and sometimes when they least expect it.

Getting this information and reassurance will be very powerful for the children you work with and see.


PS, of course some irritability/stress and negative mood in pre-teens is NOT just part of growing up.  We encourage parents to always get an opinion from a health professional if they have ongoing concerns:  a great start is with their GP.

4 Mistakes Parents can Make when their child gets in trouble at school

Last week I ran a seminar for parents at a local primary school.  I had almost got to the end of the night and we were discussing rules for kids.

As professionals who work with families, we know that an important part of parenting is to set, monitor and enforce rules for children.  Parents have to do this to help them manage life, stay safe, build relationships with others, cope with school and learn skills.

But doing this rule setting, monitoring and enforcing work is sometimes exhausting and difficult.   

At the end of this seminar last week, with just minutes to go, a parent put up their hand and said something like this:  "I've really tried to set rules, but I just can't seem to make them work.  Any ideas?".

My brain went into overdrive as I started trying to think about what I could say in 3 minutes which would be useful.  Which concepts, reassurance, advice could I give quickly to give her something to go away with? I decided to skip the theory and go straight to what I think is the heart of this stuff.

I started with reminding her that she was entirely normal.  We all feel the same.  It's a lonely job as parents, but it's a mistake to think that we are alone in our struggles.

Second - I asked her to take a minute to reflect on what was the hardest aspect for her personally in setting up, monitoring or enforcing rules with her kids.

I told her that in my experience there are three very good reasons as parents we fail to either set, monitor and enforce rules. Here they are.

1. Doubt.

2. Fear

3. Fatigue

I think helping parents know which one of these is playing a part in their decision making can be really helpful.  Let's look at them in more detail.


Parents are often uncertain about whether a rule is reasonable, useful or important.  When setting or enforcing  a rule becomes difficult (and when is it easy???) they start to second guess themselves. "Maybe this isn't important after all?  Maybe I'm being unreasonable?"  Kids and teens are often very persuasive and they are pretty talented at making parents doubt our decisions when they don't like a rule!


Maybe parents have no doubt about the appropriateness of the rule.  They understand that it's going to be beneficial for their child in the long term.  However, the idea of actually monitoring and enforcing it worries them.  What if I do this and my child/teen gets so upset they get hurt somehow?  Maybe I'm ruining their childhood?  Maybe they deserve a break?  Maybe they will have such a huge meltdown that they'll have some kind of nervous breakdown?  Maybe I will!?  Fear and concern frequently stop parents from following through.


And finally, there's fatigue.  Sometimes there's no doubt, no worry or fear - but for many reasons - they are exhausted.  They know that the rule will become another fight, another battle and they just don't have it in them to follow it up.  Fatigue convinces them to ignore the issue.

Doubt, Fear and Fatigue:  Reasons to reconsider?

Should parents always 'power on through' doubt, fear and fatigue and set, monitor and enforce rules anyway? Sometimes.  But sometimes not.

I believe doubt, fear and fatigue are all good reasons for parents to take a second look at the rule they are trying to set or enforce.  

It may actually be that the rule they are considering or struggling with is not a useful one.  In which case we should help them reconsider or revise it.  It's okay to back down or change our mind about rules.  

On the other hand, maybe they DO need to set the rule they were considering, or have another go at monitoring and enforcing an old one they already had.  

If this is the case, we probably need to take some time to help parents make a plan to reduce doubtmake a plan to deal with fear or find a way to reduce fatigue

There are ways of doing each of these things.  However, that's another article for another day.

For now, just start with this.  Next time you find yourself with parents who are failing to set a rule - or enforce it - just stop to help them notice why.   Is it doubt, fear or fatigue?  

This may help you and them decide what to do next.


Help! My child got in trouble at school today!  Four mistakes to help parents avoid when they get bad news from school

John and Judy* came in to see me a few months ago now, directly after dropping their daughter Sally (9) off at school.  I could tell by their faces that the morning had not gone well.  Sure enough, as soon as they sat down they told me about how Sally had "got in trouble" the day before and they'd just spoken to the teacher about it that morning.  It wasn't a helpful conversation.  John was furious and believed the teacher had made many mistakes in dealing with the situation, and this was "the last straw" for him.  Judy was devastated and in tears, feeling as though she personally was a failure - as well as being worried for her daughter.  

We discussed their options, how to manage their emotions and what to say and do with Sally and their options in communicating with the teacher.  It was a difficult session, but they emailed me later to say the next day had been better for them, and they had made a plan for getting through the next week.


To be honest, John and Judy are not real parents - this is a story I made up just then.  But it didn't require great creative genius (took me about 10 seconds :)) because it's inspired by hundreds of parents I've worked with over the years.  

As I'm sure you do, I see kids every week who struggle with managing their frustration, find it tough to get along with peers, struggle to following instructions, can't "stay on task" nor finish work set for them.  Their struggles means they frequently "get in trouble" at school - in other words, everything from getting corrected, reprimanded, punished, losing privileges, suspended, removed from the school, asked to be involved in mediation, reconsider their "choices" and so on.

This is frequently unavoidable for teachers, and sometimes an important process for children to experience.

However, when this happens repeatedly for children, it often breaks their parents hearts.  Parents I see with kids always "in trouble" will frequently feel angry, upset, distressed, guilty, extremely worried and confused about what to do.  

Unfortunately this distress means these parents sometimes do things which accidentally make things worse - for themselves and for their children.

I think it is useful for us to support parents in avoiding these mistakes.  To help them do so, it's useful to know what they are.  Here are four mistakes parents frequently make they find out that their child "got in trouble".

Mistake 1. They get angry at the teacher

Parents have a strong, subconscious biological urge to protect their children.

When another person criticizes, is angry at or corrects their child, they have an instinctive anger response.  This is especially true if they feel someone is acting unfairly towards their kids.  It's not always even conscious - it just happens.

Unfortunately, we know that it really, REALLY doesn't help to speak aggressively to a teacher, someone at the school (or even about a teacher in a child's presence).

Here's why we need to support parents to stay calm with teachers:

  • They usually don't have the full story - children frequently report events incorrectly, or don't tell them the entire picture.  Often they are not deliberately lying, they just don't know or see the context.
  • Most of us as professionals are trying extremely hard to support children we work with whilst doing incredibly difficult jobs. Professionals working with children often are the subject of repeated criticism from other parents and dealing with high levels of stress and burnout.
  • Acting in aggressive ways towards the teacher may make the teacher more anxious, frustrated and less co-operative - leading to them being less able to capably provide support and teaching to our children
  • Acting in aggressive ways towards a teacher in front of children may make children less respectful towards the teacher themselves, which might lead to them being "in trouble" more often.  It also doesnt help children learn to resolve conflict and work with a range of people.
  • It's not terrible for children to get into trouble occasionally.  They can potentially learn a great deal from correction, depending on the situation.  
  • Finally, acting in aggressive ways towards someone usually makes parents feel worse, not better.

Mistake 2. Parents get angry (and/or punitive) with their child

Sometimes parents go the other way when children do the wrong thing at school - they get very mad with their kids.  

This is understandable.  It IS frustrating when children act in negative ways at school.  Sometimes parents feel like they have talked with their kids repeatedly about doing the right thing at school - not hitting other kids/putting their hand up/finishing work at school/keeping their head down - and yet they still mess up.  After the tenth occasion, it's tempting to get really angry, and they pull out some great punishment (that's it, your ipad is going in the bin). 

Incidentally, it's often the case that parents will be angry at or critical of a teacher when the teacher is there, but behind closed doors, become angry at their child.  

We need to help parents know that unfortunately getting angry with their children doesn't help much either.  
Here's why parents need to stay calm with children who've "gotten in trouble":

  • As we know (and parents sometimes have forgotten) school can be extremely hard work.  Dealing with other kids is often annoying, hurtful and tiring.  Having to listen and follow instructions all day is tiring and hard work.
  • Sometimes as professionals working with kids - being human beings ourselves - we DO act in unreasonable, irritable, impatient and unfair ways. This is normal.  But for kids, dealing with this can be tough on some days.
  • It's entirely normal for children to break rules, do the wrong thing, lose their temper and get off task. Children are still learning how to manage their frustration, get along with others, concentrate, finish tasks and be respectful to others.   
  • Parents getting angry at their kids doesn't actually help children change difficult behaviour patterns - in fact it can mean they are less likely to be able to do so.

Mistake 3. Parents will ignore the situation entirely

Sometimes when their children have been disciplined at school, parents just pretend the whole thing hasn't happened.  This is not surprising.  Parents in general are often overwhelmed.  There is too much to do, no time to do it in and they are dealing with a whole range of challenges in their own lives. 

And for parents who have children who get in trouble frequently, this is especially true. Sometimes it feels to them like the best thing to do is to just let the school deal with it, not ask too many questions and/or just wait until the child is in a different class/older/something else changes. 

I believe this is often a mistake.

Here's why ignoring the situation can be a problem:

  • Almost every time children get in trouble it potentially (if we start "digging") provides parents with vital information about what their child needs.  It's like a little flag to say "here's what this child isn't so good at/needs help with/is struggling with".  This information can be extremely helpful - and we don't always get this information elsewhere.
  • Teachers don't have the time or resources to help our children learn to behave in different ways on their own.  Parents/carers we are have a unique ability to do this in different ways than a teacher can.
  • Ignoring the situation might give the message (to schools/teachers and our own children) that the difficult behaviour isn't important.  This means it may happen again.

Mistake 4. Parents blame themselves

Finally, some parents I see blame themselves when their child gets in trouble.  They feel a sense of shame about their parenting, and feel like they haven't done enough.  Once again, this doesn't help.

Here's why we need to help parents be compassionate towards themselves rather than blame ourselves

  • It is really painful for parents when their child gets in trouble repeatedly.  I have many parents cry many heart felt tears in my office about this issue.  Having your child in trouble (especially when it is repeated) causes genuine and deep hurt.  
  • If parents are patient and compassionate towards themselves as parents first, it's easier to for them to be kind to their children (and to teachers).

As professionals working with kids and teens, it can be helpful to work with parents themselves on managing this issue BEFORE any problems occur in classrooms.  The beginning of the year can provide a good opportunity to raise the topic.  You might say things like this (in class newsletters, or in counselling sessions with parents):

We know that most children will need to be corrected at school at some point.  For kids with "big feelings" sometimes this happens more frequently than for others.  We want to support you in managing this situation - because we know it can be difficult for some families.

First, can you tell me how we can support you when/if this happens?
Next, can we suggest some ideas which might help?

Eg we might advise parents to do the following:

  • Stay calm and caring when talking with your child about the situation
  • Do some gentle digging and exploring of what happened and what skills your child might need to work on,
  • Communicate calmly and respectfully to ourselves as professionals
  • Be kind to yourself  

These kinds of conversations with parents can be really useful.  It can be especially useful to raise the issue first rather than waiting until problems occur.


What are kids watching on youtube?  Four important questions for us to ask in classrooms/therapy rooms


UK based research group Child Wise conducted research last year showed that children are watching an average of 3 hours a day watching youtube videos.  Most commonly, they are watching music videos, gaming videos, “funny” real life content, videos showing pets and animals, “how to” videos and sport.    

This raises the question of how appropriate these videos are for children.  It's hard to tell.  None of this content is “rated” as G, PG, M etc in the same way that commercially produced television has been in the past.  And with more than 300 hours of video being uploaded to youtube every minute, my guess is that external ratings guides like this are going the way of the dinosaur.

This means that as a society we are going to have to find new ways of monitoring, discussing and - when appropriate - restricting video content for children. 

Here are four questions for adults to ask children to help start that process.  These questions could be used to guide a general classroom conversation (or the basis of a journal/project for older children) or one on one in a therapy/counselling room with a child you suspect may be accessing inappropriate content.  

1. Have you ever seen something on youtube that you wish you hadn’t seen, or something which made you feel worried or uncomfortable?   

This question is designed to help us know if children have come across content which we may need to discuss with them.  It’s amazing how often children will have seen something disturbing yet not bring it up with us until we ask them directly.

One child I worked with recently saw a video about someone predicting that the world would end on a certain date a few months in the future.  He was very frightened that his life was about to end – and yet still didn’t tell any adults about it until directly asked the question listed above.

There are benefits in having this conversation either in a group setting or one on one with children.  If as professionals working with children we can raise this topic with a group of children, it helps other children to start to share their concerns and we can address any issues which have arisen.  If we do it one one one, we will often uncover important information to help the child express concerns they may not be spontaneously raising.

2. If you DO feel worried, uncomfortable, guilty or scared after watching something on youtube in the future – how likely is it that you would talk to an adult?

This question is designed to check whether children will actually talk to an adult if they do see something disturbing - and what we can do about it if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. 

I asked one child this question last year.  She was adamant she would never talk to mum or dad about any disturbing content she came across because she believed if she did so, they would not let her watch youtube ever again.  It was important for us to discuss how she might manage this (how likely this was, how terrible it would be if her parents restricted content, and who else she could talk to).

If children says “no” or “I don’t know” to this question, possible follow up questions for us as professionals working with kids might be:

What stops you from talking to adults about this?
Is there anything your parents/teachers can do or not to which would make you MORE likely to talk to them? 
If you didn’t want to talk to parents, who could you talk to?

3.      What kinds of videos should be “adults only” and “okay for kids” on youtube?  Why?

This question is designed to find out whether children are aware of the difference between content suitable for children and that suitable for adults.   It is also designed to help children become aware of the difference between content which is okay for kids, and content which might scare, confuse or hurt them – and why this happens.

This can be a useful question for children to discuss and think about as a group to develop critical thinking skills and for them to consider their own content consumption.  It's also a useful starting point for kids in counselling who are possibly being exposed to videos which are not appropriate for them.

When I asked this question of one child it sparked a conversation which helped him think about the videos he was watching which we decided were “adults only”.  Just having the labels “adults only” and “okay for kids” was useful for this family – having the phrases to use to deal with these issues can be helpful.

If children don’t know the answer to this question, or say, “nothing” – possible follow-up questions are listed below.  Keep in mind that the asking and/or the phrasing of all of these questions will need to be modified depending on the child’s developmental level.  Also keep in mind that it's important to try and ask these questions from a "value free" perspective - as some families we work with will be okay with their children watching videos with some element of the below and some won’t be:

What about videos which show people being violent towards others? 
What about videos which show people who are naked, nearly naked or involved in sexual activity? 
What about videos which have a lot of/some swearing?
What about videos which show people drinking alcohol or using drugs? 
What about videos which show people making fun of others?
What about videos which show people doing activities which might be dangerous or illegal?
What about videos which might be okay for kids to watch occasionally, but would NOT be good for kids to watch many of, all the time (eg videos with stereotyped views of girls or boys)

4. How can adults help kids to only watch “okay for kids” youtube videos and avoid "adults only" video?

This question is designed to give us children's perspective on potential limits for youtube watching, and to introduce them to the idea that “adults are in charge” of video watching. 

We need to introduce this idea to them because while education and communication (for example via the questions above) is the most important thing we can do for children (we won’t always be able to protect them from inappropriate content), it is also essential for children's well being that adults have final say on some aspects of video watching.

Asking this question in the counselling room can start the mediation process between parents and children about rules about technology use.

These conversations are not easy.  For example, one child I talked to about this became quite upset about the idea that adults should be in charge of his youtube watching because he had never been introduced to this idea.  His parents/carers and I had to carefully manage how we put rules in place, while still respecting his desire for independence.  Another child surprised his parents (and myself) by agreeing that some videos were “adults only” and initiating several rules we hadn’t thought of to make sure he wasn’t tempted to watch them.

Here are some follow up questions which might help to develop the “adults in charge” concept to children.

What do you think about putting the “safety mode” on youtube?
What do you think about the youtube kids app – and only watching youtube via the app?
What do you think about a rule that you need to show adults a channel you are interested in before you “subscribe” to the video?
What do you think about a rule which says “No commenting” on youtube videos?
What do you think about a rule which says kids should only watching youtube for a certain number of minutes each week?
What do you think about kids only watching youtube on certain devices and/or in certain places (ie not on your phone/not in the bedroom.

Not our job to solve or fix....just to start the process

Helping children only watch “okay for kids” videos on youtube can be a difficult task.  As professionals working with children however, it's enough for us just take small steps towards this and do it slowly over time.  Just start with one of the questions above (reminder:  Have you seen something which has upset you?  If you did see something which upset you – would you talk to an adult?  What videos should be “adults only” and “How can we help you only watch “okay for kids” videos).


PS, for more help with "scripts" for talking with children about tricky issues, go to 

13 Reasons Why - The 2 minute summary for teachers and counsellors (plus questions to ask teens who've watched the series) 


I've been asked by several people over the last few weeks about my views about the popular Netflix show - 13 Reasons Why.  If you haven't come across it yet, this show is a Netflix series about a girl (Hannah) who suicides by cutting her wrists in a bath-tub.  The show follows the audio tapes she has made prior to her death which explain her reasons for doing so (primarily related to bullying, conflict and rejection by her peers).  I read the book version of this show a year ago, and found it sad and confronting.  I haven't watched the full series, but have seen snippets of it, and read through the plot of each episode (which varies a little from the book).

There has been much written about these series.  

Some people (including, not surprisingly, the producers and psychologist consultant for the show itself) say that it is a valuable mental health awareness raising exercise.  Others are highly critical of the series and say it may increase suicidality in teens (clearly it's intended audience).  As with so many issues, I find myself in the middle of the road about it.  Here are my thoughts!

There are some potentially positive aspects for teens in watching the show.

1. It's going to appeal to many teens.  It has excellent production values, an interesting story line and is about characters which many teens will relate to.

2. It clearly shows the extent to which suicide can cause terrible grief and distress for survivors.  For some teens with suicidal thoughts, this may dissuade them from acting on their thoughts.

3. It shows the graphic and painful nature of the suicide method used by Hannah.  There is little "glamorisation" of the suicide scene itself, it is filmed realistically and graphically.

4. The show provides an opportunity for ourselves as professionals/families/schools to talk with teens about the potentially devastating impact of sexual assault, bullying and conflict on individuals.

5. The show provides an opportunity for ourselves as professionals/families/schools to talk with teens about suicidal thoughts.

In addition, I find that "banning" teens from watching something, tends to make it far more interesting than if we hadn't banned it in the first place..something about teens wanting to assert their individuality and sense of being control!

However, I also believe there are a number of potentially significant risks for some vulnerable teens if they watch this show.  These are as follows:

1. The show is undeniably distressing in and of itself.  We get to know Hannah and care about her.  We also care about other characters.  Seeing her parents try to revive Hannah for example is heart-breaking.  There can be real grief for young people seeing a "friend" die, even if that friend is a character on a TV show.

2. Suicide is portrayed as a "reasonable" response to bullying.  Viewers feel as through it "makes sense" that Hannah suicides, rather than seeing it as an irrational, short term decision.

3. The show has Hannah "memoralised" - her thoughts/points of view are remembered and understood by many after her death.  There is a shrine created of her after she has died.  Being memoralised in this way may be an attractive thought for some teens and may increase suicidal thinking.

4. The method of suicide is clearly shown - this may increase the knowledge and understanding of suicide for some teens and increase the likelihood of suicidal thinking and behaviour. 

5. The show suggests that there is no reliable hope, treatment or support for people who are feeling suicidal - (Hannah reached out for support and did not get it) - again, this may decrease the chance of help seeking behaviour and also increase the likelihood of suicidal thinking and behaviour in some teens.

For all of these reasons, and knowing the 50 plus studies which show that the way suicide is publicly portrayed increases the risk of suicide for vulnerable individuals - I believe some teens are likely to be at increased risk of suicidal thinking and behaviour if they watch this series.

Essentially, I believe mental health education and promotion can be done in more positive ways.  

Here are the messages we need to spread amongst teenagers:

  • Feeling depressed and suicidal is very common. You are not "abnormal" or "a freak" if you feel this way.  
  • Feeling depressed and suicidal is not your fault.
  • Suicide is not a logical nor reasonable option.
  • You can get help and support when you are feeling depressed and suicidal.

I'm not sure that 13 Reasons Why effectively communicates any of these messages.

If teens talk with us about wanting to watch 13 Reasons Why, I'd suggest we do this:

1 Ask them what appeals to them about watching it.  Is there something in particular about it they are curious about?  Do they feel people are being unnecessarily negative about it?   

2. Share your concerns about them watching it (use the list above if you like).  

3. If they intend to watch it, and you have contact with parents/carers - suggest that parents/carers watch it with them.  If you do not have contact with parents/carers - and you feel it's appropriate - give them KidsHelp Line number and Lifeline number to call after watching if you think they might be distressed. Suggest they follow up with yourself or someone else they know after watching it.

4. Avoid general class discussions about the topic if possible, discussions in a group setting or class assignments on the topic.  As discussed, this series may be distressing for some young people and it's impossible to monitor well being accurately in a group.

5.  If you get an opportunity to talk with teenagers one on one after they tell you they have watched it, ask the following questions.

  • What did you think of the show?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What could Hannah have done differently at this point/this point/what about here?
  • If I was Hannah's counsellor/school teacher - how could I have helped her?
  • What is Hannah thinking and feeling which is not true, helpful or logical?
  • What could Hannah have reminded herself of when she was feeling hopeless?
  • If you were in Hannah's position and experiencing those events - what would you do?
  • Have you felt this way in the past?
  • What could others have done for you to help?

5. And of course, if you get any information from a teen which suggests they have suicidal thoughts - we need to take further steps to monitor their safety.  This means - depending on the relationship we have with them - doing a more detailed risk assessment (click here if you'd like more info on this Keeping Teens Safe).  It may also mean breaking confidentiality and taking steps to have the teenager more closely monitored and supported, and getting further help.

6.  For professionals working with young people and who feel anxious about this topic, it's important to remember that suicide in Australian teens is still statistically rare (11 per 100,000 in 14-17 year olds). However of course, it does occur and we need to be on the lookout for teens at risk.

6. Finally, if you have watched 13 Reasons Why yourself - take care of yourself too.  Without diminishing our need to take care of our needs, it's important to note that statistically adults are more likely to experience suicidal thinking than teenagers are.  If you feel depressed, or suicidal, see your own GP or call Lifeline 131114.

Helping Kids deal with Negative Emotions in the Classroom

Professionals working in classrooms have a huge range of tasks they are juggling every day - from meeting curriculum goals, managing behaviour, dealing with parental expectations, negotiating special learning needs to lesson planning - and hundreds more.

It's no wonder that sometimes dealing with negative emotions or mental health issues in students seems like an impossible task on top of another set of demands.

Unfortunately however, we know that worried, stressed, sad, angry and upset kids simply don't learn well at school.  When humans (of all ages) experience strong negative emotions  - our ability to concentrate, use language and problem solve is severely impaired.

This means that helping students manage their emotions at school is an extremely important part of teaching.  

But it doesnt have to mean hours of extra teaching time.  Here are some brief actions teachers can take which make big differences to students' well being:

1. Talk about emotions

Children with good emotional literacy do better at school and cope better with strong emotions.  Good emotional literacy means the following:

  • Understanding that there are different emotions (anger, sadness, worry, embarrassment, excitement, happiness, guilt etc)
  • Understanding that emotions vary in intensity from mild to strong
  • Understanding that emotions are triggered by thoughts and situations
  • Being able to identify emotions in self and others
  • Being able to express emotions and take steps to cope with negative emotions

We can help children increase their emotional literacy simply by making emotions part of a daily vocabularly. For example, in discussing books, movies, classroom situations or topic from other curriculum areas, teachers can ask questions like:

  • What was that character feeling there?
  • I wonder whether this person is feeling more angry or more worried?
  • What do you think went through their mind in that situation?
  • What made this person so upset do you think?  Was it X..or Y...Or Z?
  • If that happened to me, I think I would feel X and X.  How about you?
  • What happened that might have made X feel that way?
  • I think X might be feeling X right now.   How strong was that feeling on a scale from 1-10?
  • What could she/he say?

    It is also useful for classrooms to have feeling charts displayed visually, have the opportunity for students to put a marker of some kind if they choose or have scales of intensity of emotion they can draw.

2. When you notice emotion, acknowledge and empathise before doing anything else

When children get angry, worried or sad in the classroom or yard, it is important to acknowledge the emotion and express empathy rather than ignoring the emotion, or moving straight into problem solving, distracting, giving advice or making suggestions.

Acknowledgement and empathy means a short sentence naming the possible emotion, checking out whether this is true and saying that we care about their struggle.  For example:

I can see you are feeling really frustrated right now.  I'm sorry you are feeling so bad.
I could be wrong but you seem a little worried.  That must feel tough.
I'm sorry you are feeling upset about that.
I think I would also feel very sad if that was me.
I know you are very angry.  It's not fun to feel overwhelmed like that.
I'm sorry you are feeling so sad.

Keep in mind that for older children, this statement is often better said quietly - directly to the child, rather than in front of the class.  Also keep in mind, that once acknowledgement and empathy has occurred, teachers can move into problem solving and distraction options fairly quickly if needed.

Here are the powerful benefits of acknowledging and empathising with emotions in children.

The child hears two essential messages:

You are cared about and noticed in this room

Emotions are not dangerous things - you can have them, I can speak about them - and you are still okay

The child also has hears someone else express their emotions which increases the chance they will be able to identify and express them themselves next time. 

As adults we are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge emotions and empathise with children because a) we feel there is no time, b) it will increase the child's distress and make the situation unmanageable or c) it will excuse the child's difficult behaviour.  

None of these things are necessarily true.  Empathising with emotions doesn't mean we are excusing or allowing challenging behaviour.  Empathising with emotion doesnt take a lot of time.  Empathising with emotion often reduces distress because the child hears that someone understands them.  Even if distress is momentarily raised, it can be managed and the benefits of the child knowing they are heard, understood and that emotions are okay - far outweight the occasional temporary increase in distress.   

3. Have a plan for "When I'm not feeling good" - discussed and visually presented in the classroom

Given that children experience strong emotions frequently (often on a daily basis) they need a "go to" guide to teach them what to do when it happens.  This guide needs to be created by the class and teacher at the beginning of the year, and then referred to frequently.  Some classes will have this guide printed on poster, for other children it sits on their desk.  The guide is called something like: "Ideas for what to do when I'm feeling very angry, worried or sad"

I have helped many teachers develop these plans and they vary according to the age group.  However, the kinds of options on classroom managing feeling plans include:

  • Take a slow breath in, and an even slower breath out
  • Say my "calm thoughts" (Children can have prepared these earlier to keep in their pencil case or tray - they might be sentences they find reassuring like, "I'm okay", "I can cope", "it's not the end of the world" etc)
  • Do 2 minutes of hard concentrating on my task to help "restart" my thinking brain
  • Play an "imagine if" game (imagine if I won $1000 dollars, Imagine if I could fly, Imagine if I was playing football for the crows"
  • Hold a soothing object (fiddle toy, plasticine, soft teddy)
  • Write a note/draw a picture to tell the teacher I am feeling bad
  • Stretch my body

    Some schools have designated spots children can go to when they are feeling very angry, upset or worried. This can work well, but must be managed carefully to make sure children are not learning a pattern of avoidance.  Where possible, helping kids manage strong emotions in the spot they are in is most useful.

4. Help children identify their support people and encourage children to communicate with them

Children need to have adults they can talk to about their worries, frustration and struggles in life.  Teachers cannot always provide this ongoing support themselves, but they play an important role in helping children identify and seek these people out. Teachers can do this by asking children to write down who they would talk to about different situations or struggles.  For example a useful work sheet lists a column of potential struggles and tricky situations (When I am worried about something at home, when I am frustrated with school work, when I feel scared about something, when I feel upset about friends...etc) - and a column for children to fill in by drawing or writing the people in their life they could talk to about these struggles.

Teachers might have to generate a list of possibilities initially for students to choose from (eg parents, grandparents, relatives, doctor, school chaplain, teacher, neighbour, older sibling, Kids Helpline, psychologist, counsellor etc)

It is also a good idea for children to write down exactly what they would say to initiate the conversation, or draw themselves talking to their support person.  This mini "rehearsal" of the conversation means they will be more likely to seek help when needed.

5. Praise, acknolwedge and reward brave and calm behaviour

Positive reinforcement is an amazingly powerful tool which can dramatically increase the chance of behaviour occurring again.  Just as teachers provide positive reinforcement to students who are working hard at learning tasks, they also need to provide positive reinforcement to students when they act in calm or brave ways.

  • I noticed you took a big breath then instead of running away.  So wonderful.
  • You really tried not to yell then, I'm really proud of you.
  • Thankyou for doing that presentation for us, I know that took lots of courage.
  • You read that reader to me even though you were feeling nervous, thankyou so much for being so brave.
  • I noticed you made an effort to get on with your work even when you were frustrated at John.  You are really becoming a calm student and I'm impressed.

    There are many other ways to help children cope with strong emotions and emotional well being challenges in the classroom.  Feel free to email me with your ideas or to ask questions.

Kirrilie Smout is a clinical child psychologist who has worked with thousands of kids over the last 20 years, in schools and in her clinic.  

Kirrilie is the author of "When Life Sucks for Kids" - a highly acclaimed self help book for 8- 13 year olds to help them cope with tricky situations with school, friends, family, feelings and life.