4 ways to support children to externalise their feelings

When it comes to feelings, there are two routes that we can take:

  1. We learn to externalise our feelings, having the ability to talk about them and express them through behaviours
  2. We learn to internalise our feelings, defaulting to suppressing or holding them in so noone can see

In the reverse to a first aid situation, when we cannot see someone’s expression of feelings this is a warning sign that a child or young person needs support. When we can see a child’s behaviours or hear their expressed words, this gives us insight and signs that they may be struggling. If we take the time to consider that all behaviours in young people are symptoms that something is happening then we can become curious. However, when a young person is internalising their feelings they can become somewhat of a duck on the pond. Graceful, independent, maybe compliant and this is deceptive to us as their good behaviour is often praised, whilst they are suppressing their feelings internally.

So, why does this happen?

There are many reasons that a child or young person may internalise their feelings, including but not limited to:

  1. Attachment style – a child who is parented by adults who struggle to express their feelings or talk about them, or talks excessively about their feelings may not learn how to
  2. Dynamics – a child who has a sibling who has developmental, mental health, medical or behaviour needs may feel that their sibling needs the support more than they do
  3. Negative experiences – a child who has attempted to seek help and express their feelings, who has had a negative experience may feel that doing this again is unsafe
  4. Emotional Literacy – a child who has lower emotional literacy skills may not have the knowledge or language to express their feelings
  5. Neurodivergence – a child who is neurodivergence may have difficulty with their interoception and/or emotional literacy which affects their ability to identify and express feelings
  6. Communication skills – a child who has a delay in their language skills may find it challenging to recognise and express their feelings

So, how can we take steps to support children?

Create safe spaces to talk – How can you create safe spaces to talk about feelings where the child is heard, seen and validated? How do we provide time and space for them to do this at their own pace without judgement or rushing? Children who internalise can sometimes be scared that they will be judged for sharing how they feel or that it will be downplayed, consider how we can make this a safe and curious environment.

Be a role model – Role model expressing feelings (without oversharing) consider how you demonstrate expressing your own feelings ‘I’ve had a really hard day today, its made me feel overwhelmed, I think i will (insert self-care)’ or how you show young people how you respond to your own feelings, whether this is therapy, talking to a friend or partner etc. When we normalise feelings being talked about we create an environment where the child can process how this will look for them

Think about how we talk about it – Consider what children hear about the expression of feelings. If they hear adults criticise or shame others for expressing feelings, they will often suppress their own more. If they witness adults talk poorly of someone who has expressed their feelings they can be concerned this is how others will view them. Consider the language used when others are feeling overwhelmed by big feelings and how we react to it to be curious.

Extend emotional literacy – Consider how children are given space and opportunity to explore feelings in different ways. This can be through more formalised emotional literacy programmes, or through stories, activities, games and films. Extending our emotional language and understanding is core to developing the skills, over time, to express our feelings.

Want to learn more? 

Would you like to deliver emotional literacy interventions in your work? Our Level 3 Emotional Literacy Mentor qualification takes you through the theory and practice to deliver emotional literacy support for children aged 3-12 years. You can start today by joining (click here)

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support.  You can join our Level 4 training (here).

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Further help 

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