Expert Q&A: How to Help Your Child Find Their Voice

Shanghai psychologists and counselors weigh in on this important subject

by Alex Sheffield | Fri, March 03, 2017

Last week, we published a story entitled "Helping Your Child Find Their Voice," detailing how children can benefit from learning how to communicate their thoughts and emotions. We got a lot of great feedback, and requests for more information. Luckily, our experts from Concordia International School Shanghai, Yew Chung International School and Olivia’s Place were able to expand their answers and offer us some great tips and advice. Read on for more info. 

Q: Why it is important for children to feel heard and understood?

"Children who consistently feel heard and understood tend to be more resilient, more self-confident, and better able to socially support others. It teaches them to trust their thoughts, feelings, and growing capacity to learn from their environment. The latter especially helps to navigate new situations, which nurtures a basic sense of trust in the world. Children who feel heard and understood tend to have more self-esteem, and can better maintain a rich web of social relationships throughout their lives." 
Jenny Franco-Marsh (M.Ed), Middle School Counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai

"Listening to children also provides an opportunity for them to learn about right and wrong. Children will more likely be able to apply skills if they have a chance to be heard and understood, even if they make a mistake. In fact, mistakes can be used as a learning tool and should be encouraged to be explored in a non-judgmental way, which will also encourage stronger communication skills in your child."
Zoe Andrews, School Counselor at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Regency Park

Q: Why may children find it difficult to speak out? Are some topics more difficult than others, or is it more challenging for different ages and genders?

"Children may find it more difficult to speak out if they are not encouraged to do so, or if they have a more introverted or shy personality. If they are predisposed to be less talkative, but show a strong self-esteem and confidence, then it’s not necessarily a problem if they can internally process their thoughts and feelings appropriately. Children learn communication patterns from their main caregivers, so if they find it harder to speak up, it might be because they have not been given the opportunity to do so in the past. Often, boys find it more difficult to speak out, which could be down to different social expectations on boys and girls; although this isn’t always the case. Some children may have had a negative experience of speaking out, for example with a very strict or authoritarian adult, so this has altered the way they communicate.

There are topics that might be more challenging, depending on individual family circumstances, family ‘norms’, and cultural expectations. Children learn very quickly what they feel comfortable saying in front of parents and what they feel they shouldn’t say for example, for fear of upsetting or angering. Communication patterns can also change when there has been a change in family dynamic, or a change in family situation, such as moving to a different country, divorce or illness."
Zoe Andrews, School Counselor at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Regency Park

"The confusion that comes with the constant stream of new situations and emotions can leave children feeling unaware of how to express themselves. First of all, they are simply unfamiliar with addressing these topics. Additionally, they may feel they’re expected to act, speak, or present themselves in a certain way. These pressures can make it difficult to feel comfortable talking about things they fear may go against these expectations. For example, 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 for them. If they believe they should always appear strong, they may avoid talking about feelings of being hurt by a peer. The goal should be for children to know it is okay to be who they are and express that."
Dr Beth Rutkowski, Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place

Q: How can children benefit from being able to articulate themselves clearly?

Improved self-confidence:
Children who can articulate themselves clearly benefit by having their needs met quickly. If a child is able to say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling then it makes it easier for the adults to understand the situation and step in and help with their needs. If a child understands their thoughts and feelings, and can advocate for themselves, then they feel like they have control over their life, and this in turn increases their self-confidence.


Benefit from getting needs and wants met faster at school:
Students who can self-advocate find it easier to get what they need at school. For example, if a child can’t concentrate because the person sitting next to them keeps talking. That child must be able to turn to that other student and 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 the child has to be able to go up 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 stop. Can you help me?” Children who can express themselves often have an easier time adjusting to new situations and building new friendships.


Calm and positive:
Children who feel like they are understood definitely show calmer behavior and a more positive attitude. Being able to articulate what one is thinking or feeling and speaking up for oneself only makes a child feel safe, understood, and supported. Frustrations and anxiety is reduced in comparison to those who find it more difficult to ask for help.
Jenny Franco-Marsh (M.Ed), Middle School Counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai

Check list for facilitating open-conversations:

• Conversations should not only be for times of distress.
• Try to schedule a regular conversation time with your child – on the way home from school, at the dinner table, or before bed.
• This way, they do not feel challenged or cornered when you notice something may be bothersome to them and you attempt to engage about it.
• It is important to ensure that your child does not feel judged for any emotions or thoughts they bring to you.
• Avoid telling them how you think they should be thinking or feeling. If you guess and guess wrong, they are far more likely to shut down. Allow them to talk at their own pace. Allow them to talk in their own time.
• Don’t force a conversation just because you know they are feeling something. Let them know you are there when they need to talk, and check in on less poignant topics in the mean time.
Dr Beth Rutkowski, Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place

Final words of advice

“It is helpful to remember that children’s brains are still developing, and don’t reach maturity until the age of around 22-years-old. The part of our brain used for emotions develops faster, while the part we use for logical thinking, empathy, and understanding social situations is the last part to develop. This is why children can often be ruled by their emotions!”
Zoe Andrews, School Counselor at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Regency Park

“Parents are their child’s most influential teachers. Children are always watching and listening to what their parents do. If parents model positive communication and problem solving skills, then their child will automatically learn by example. Parents have the opportunity to self-advocate for themselves while always showing kindness and respect. If they do this on a regular basis then their child will also learn to self-advocate in a respectful manner.”
Jenny Franco-Marsh (M.Ed), Middle School Counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai
“Prepare. Be aware of circumstances or situations that seem to be especially emotional or difficult for your child. Make sure that they know before a ‘crisis’ hits that this is safe to talk about. Bring up especially challenging and concerning topics before they are an active concern – bullying, substance use, failing classes. Removing the shame from talking about such things is extremely important. If you notice that your child does seem to struggle to talk to you about certain things, don’t be hesitant to bring in another adult to help. This may be a relative, a professional at school, or an outside therapist. Ensure that they know there is no shame in getting help when you need it as well.”
Dr Beth Rutkowski, Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place