How to Talk With Your Child About Social and Emotional Issues

ByAmanda Morin

At a glance

  • Talking openly about social and emotional issues is important.

  • Kids may be reluctant to talk, so keep the first conversation simple.

  • Letting kids know you’re there to listen and not judge helps them feel more comfortable talking.

When kids have trouble with social-emotional skills, it may be uncomfortable talk about the challenges they face. But it’s important to talk openly and show them there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Talking about struggles with emotions and social skills shows that how your child feels matters to you. And it helps kids put into perspective that they may struggle with certain things, but not with everything

Find out what you can say, and when to say it.

When to Talk to Your Child

Don’t think of this as a one-time conversation. As kids get older, their social-emotional skills improve, especially if you’re working on them together. The first conversation is just the beginning and will help your child know you’re there to listen and to help.

Early on, try to keep things simple. As kids start to understand more and their skills change, your conversations will change, too. In fact, it may get easier to talk about things because as kids learn more about themselves, they may be less defensive talking about uncomfortable subjects.

What to Say to Your Child

Most kids know when things are harder for them than for other kids. Acknowledging they may feel different is important. But also let them know they’re not the only ones who struggle to manage their emotions and behavior.

In fact, that’s a good way to start the conversation—by saying that out loud. Here are more things you can say.

“I know this is hard for you. I want to help.”

Kids who struggle with social and emotional issues may feel lonely or alone. When you talk, try to find a balance between the positive and the negative. You need to talk about the negative emotions your child is feeling. But it’s important to offer positive support, too.

Remind your child how much you care. Try to say things like “I love you,” and “We’re going to work to make this OK.” (Don’t say “everything is going to be OK” unless you’re sure it’s going to be. You don’t want to overpromise.)

“I’m concerned about…”

Be direct about what’s worrying you. Kids need to understand why you are concerned, to not feel blamed, and to know there’s room for improvement. It you’re concerned about how your child acts in a social situation talk about specific situations.

It’s better to say, “I’m concerned that you got so loud and angry when we had to leave the birthday party,” than to say something vague like, “It worries me that you get so loud and angry sometimes.”

If you’re worried about your child’s mood or attitude, point it out in a way that emphasizes what you’re seeing. Avoid saying things like, “You always seem so down lately,” or “You never want to hang out with friends anymore.” Instead, try things like:

  • “I’ve noticed you seem sad and anxious. Am I reading that right?” or
  • “I haven’t seen you spend much time with friends recently. Can we talk about that?”

“I know this is a big deal to you.”

Telling kids to get over it or saying “you shouldn’t feel that way” when they’re upset or struggling with behavior rarely helps. It is a big deal to them. And trying to convince kids otherwise is counterproductive.

Instead, try to respond with empathy and understanding.

“You may feel out of control, but it’s safe to talk to me.”

When kids are explosive, try to respond calmly. It can be scary for kids to have a meltdown or feel stuck in their big emotions. They need to have a safe place where they won’t be met with equally big emotions.

That means staying calm even when it’s hard to do. If you don’t naturally respond calmly to stressful situations, it can take some practice. Try role-playing with a friend or partner to prepare for real conversations with your child.

“I believe you.”

Kids who learn and think differently are often anxious about more than just monsters under the bed. They may also worry about common situations that other kids don’t even think about. Even if what they’re worried about wouldn’t make you anxious or make sense to you, it’s real to them.

Encourage kids to be open about their fears and tell them you believe them. And let your child that there are ways to manage stress and anxiety. Explain you’ll work with the school and others to find ways to keep anxiety from getting in the way so much.

“Tell me what’s on your mind.”

When talking with your child about struggles, listen before talking. Sometimes if you jump right to advice, it shuts down the conversation. Ask questions after you’ve heard from your child. If your child has done anything to work on situation, praise the effort even if the approach didn’t work.

Once your child has shared, you can offer advice or suggestions. Help your child identify the specific problem by restating what you heard.

Follow up with questions that give a little direction and encourage a growth mindset, like “Do you have thoughts as to why that didn’t work?” or “How would you do it differently next time?”

“Let’s brainstorm some solutions.”

Ask questions like, “What could you do in situations like this?” Follow up with questions like, “What do you think would happen if you tried that?” If your child is stuck, share what you think might happen or how you might handle it.

After you’ve talked through possible solutions, ask your child to choose what’s most likely to solve the problem. Just remember—it’s your child’s choice, not yours.

It can be hard to talk to kids about social and emotional struggles. But it’s important. It can bring you closer and shows there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Key takeaways

  • Be specific about your concerns and what you're seeing.

  • Listen before offering solutions, and assure your child you know it's a big deal.

  • If you have trouble staying calm when your child is explosive, role play with a friend or partner.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.