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Helping a Child Communicate Feelings

Question:My nine-year old daughter has recently lost interest in regular activities such as play, eating, dance class, etc. I have asked her several times if anything is wrong but she insists there isn’t. Nothing has really changed in our daily lives, although her grandmother, with whom she’s very close, did recently move to a different state. How can I get my daughter to open up to me?

Jennifer Tipton, M.S., LPC: Children often struggle to express their thoughts and emotions, especially difficult emotions. Although you are aware that she may be grieving her grandmother’s move, it can still be very concerning to see your daughter struggling to find enjoyment in daily life and activities.  It is a helpless feeling to check in with questions, and not be able to identify the cause of her struggle and pain. With minimal skills to be able to articulate emotion, distress can manifest in loss of interest in daily life, emotional outbursts, regression, or struggles with eating and sleeping. When approaching your daughter, it will be helpful to first validate and reflect what you are seeing and your concerns.  This will allow her the opportunity to hear your concern and help normalize her feelings.  As a nine-year old, she is still very self-focused, and her ability to see perspectives outside of her own is difficult.  Reflecting thoughts like, “I’ve noticed you do not enjoy playing anymore” or  “Eating seems like it is a lot harder right now” will help facilitate a dialogue. These are concrete statements that speak directly to her. Direct questions are difficult to answer because it is sometimes hard to identify what is wrong. Statements like, “I know it has been about a month since Grandma moved, I imagine you are really missing her” will help her feel heard and understood. Creating a feeling of being seen, heard, and understood by you through reflection will help her begin to identify her feelings.

If you continue to see a loss of interest in activities it may be helpful to schedule a parent consultation to assess her functioning and the possible causes of her loss of interest in activities.  During the consultation we can discuss if therapy would be a helpful tool for her.  Play and activity therapies give children the opportunity to express difficult thoughts and emotions in developmentally appropriate ways.