Helping Your Child Find Their Voice

How children can benefit from learning to communicate thoughts and emotions

by Alex Sheffield | Mon, February 27, 2017

For some adults it can be hard to speak up if they have a problem. But when the daily pressures of work, home life, bills and dependants build up, most have developed the skills over time to pin-point issues. Adults have increased their confidence to voice concerns and ask for advice, or just for a sympathetic ear. But how about our children?

Emotional development

From the moment they’re born, children begin to adapt to their environment, with relentless learning continuing well into adolescence and beyond. Alongside the many physical changes children and young adults experience, emotional development is also occurring and could perhaps be even more challenging. We can’t see or hear what is going on inside our childrens’ minds, so emotional support is vital.
“As kids grow and learn more about the world around them, they experience a constant stream of changing thoughts and emotions,” explains Dr Beth Rutkowski, Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place, Shanghai. “Some are positive, some are challenging, and some are painful. So one of the most difficult parts of growing up is not only experiencing these feelings, but processing them and trying to figure out where they fit.”
Providing pediatric therapy to children of all abilities and ages, Olivia’s Place is familiar with the difficulties children face. Dr Rutkowski highlights how confusion comes with a constant stream of new situations, such as moving to a new country, starting a new school or difficulties with friendships, alongside the emotions attached. When children are unfamiliar with how to address such topics it can be hard to communicate and express themselves. “They may feel they’re expected to act, speak, or present themselves in a certain way,” says Dr Rutkowski. “If a child believes that he or she is supposed to always perform well in school, they may have difficulty asking for help when a certain class is challenging. Or if they believe they should always appear strong, they may avoid talking about feelings of being hurt by a peer. The goal is for children to know it’s okay to be who they are and express that.”

The positive results of speaking up

So how can the link between recognizing emotions and speaking out benefit children? Jenny Franco-Marsh (M.Ed), Middle School Counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai explains that “if a child understands their thoughts and feelings, and can advocate for themselves, they feel like they have [more] control over their life – which in turn increases self-confidence.” When students feel heard and understood, not only does their confidence improve but frustrations and anxiety decrease, as a more positive attitude and outlook takes over. “Children who can articulate themselves clearly benefit by having their needs met quickly,” Franco-Marsh continues. “When a child is able to articulate exactly what they’re thinking and feeling, it makes it easier for adults to understand the situation and step in to help with the child’s needs.”
Students feel empowered by communicating and feeling heard, allowing them to trust their own thoughts and feelings while navigating new situations. “If a child can’t concentrate [in class] because the person sitting next to them keeps talking, that child must be able to say, 'Hey, I really need to get this work done but I can’t concentrate with you talking. Can you please stop?' If that doesn’t work then they should feel able to go to the teacher and say, 'I’m having a hard time concentrating; I asked the person sitting next to me to please be quiet but they won’t. Can you help?'"

Encourage open conversations

Children might ‘bottle things up’, as they don’t know who to talk to or how to approach certain topics, such as moving to a new country, relationships or school anxiety. “Children learn communication patterns from their main caregivers,” says Zoe Andrews, School Counselor at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Regency Park. “If they find it hard to speak up, it might be because they have not been given the opportunity to do so in the past,” Andrews continues. “Children learn quickly what they feel comfortable saying in front of parents and [also] what they feel they shouldn’t say, for fear of upsetting or angering.” So while boundaries and suitable discipline are crucial for a child’s development, nurturing a sense of self-worth and identity by allowing open discussions is also important.

The most effective way to encourage open conversation is to create a safe, supportive, calm and trusting environment. “Encourage children to use their words to describe their experiences and also reflect back to them what you think they might be feeling,” suggests Andrews. “Do not assume or tell them that you know; instead try phrases like, 'you seem a little angry, do you feel a little sad/embarrassed/guilty?' to help make sense of their emotional experiences.”
If your child still finds it hard to be vocal, try artistic alternatives to help express emotions; listen to music, make a piece of art or try keeping a journal to write down thoughts and feelings. “Creativity can be a very powerful way of expressing ourselves because parts of our brain are activated that can help process our experiences and feelings non-verbally,” says Andrews.  A once confident child might become more reserved when entering adolescence as they start to separate from the family unit. Andrews highlights to “let them know you’ll be there to listen if they need you, and provide positive opportunities to spend time together.”
Students comfortable in their own skin “minimize preoccupation and distraction with their inner concerns, [especially] during class,” Dr Rutkowski points out. “It can help them feel more at ease and accepted, and therefore more confident in the person they’re becoming.”
For more information, read our Q&A from the experts.