I'm fine! Working with children/teens who struggle to say how they feel


One of our jobs as professionals is to help young people express their negative emotions clearly and respectfully - to us, and to others.

This isn't easy.  Many children and teens find it hard to tell us how they feel when they are upset, angry, worried or embarrassed.  

This is not surprising.

It is difficult for us as adults to describe negative emotions, what might have caused them and what we would like to happen differently.   It's even harder for young people, with less developed brains - and sometimes bigger and more powerful feelings which interfere with communication skills at the best of times.

But it is something to work on.......

While it is normal for young people to struggle to say how they feel (AND also okay for them to choose not to tell us everything they feel upset about) - it's also important for them to gradually improve their ability to express negative emotion - at least some of the time, to someone.

Researchers have found that people who are more able to communicate their negative emotions (ie "how do I feel, when did I start feeling that way and what do I need") experience less problems in life than those people who can't express negative emotions in this way.

When I work with families in the clinic I will always be asking parents/carers and young people themselves questions like this:

"How effectively (kindly, clearly, assertively) can you/your young person express anger?"
"How effectively can you/your child/teen communicate that they feel anxious?"
"How effectively can you/your child/teen tell others they are sad?" 

I'm sure as a professional you have many strategies you use to help young people to respectfully and specifically express their emotions.  For example you might:

Ask young people to write you a letter/send you an email about the issue they are frustrated about (remember, this is not just to get information - it is to help the young person express themselves)
"Scaffold" the conversation by using either/or questions and scales:  "Do you feel X or Y, and what number on a scale from 1 to 10".
Use feeling prompts (made up cards, emotional resources) to ask young people to describe a time they experienced that emotion
Use feeling prompts (made up cards, emotional resources) to ask young people to describe a time another person (friend or family or TV character) experienced that emotion
Describe an emotion you experienced that week and ask the young person to tell you a time something similar happened to them
There are many other ways to teach emotional expression skills.

If you are want another resource, you might like to use my "circle the feeling letter" template here.


This is a one page letter in which kids/teens simply have to "circle" the emotion they are experiencing, what has prompted the feeling and something they'd like to happen next.  It requires only a few strokes of a pen - and helps them take some steps towards getting better at communicating.

I often photocopy this a few times for parents/carers and ask them to put it in the young person's drawer in their bedroom.  Every now and then (and when the parent/carer guesses they are experiencing negative emotions) - they ask them to complete one and put it under their pillow.

I've also used it in session myself with particularly "quiet" kids or teens and asked them to do it in front of me and then we discuss it.

One of our important jobs as professionals is to help kids and teens is to get better at managing their emotions - and one of the first steps to doing this is to help them talk about them.