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What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Talk When Upset


Discover effective strategies to encourage your child to communicate their feelings when upset, fostering a supportive and understanding family environment.

As our children grow, their big emotions sometimes get too big to handle. When your child encounters frustrating or upsetting situations, their first instinct may be to shut down rather than speak up. 

While it’s only natural to be worried if your child refuses to talk when upset, this reaction is a common one in the journey to emotional maturity. 

Let’s delve into how caretakers can empathize with children, some creative ways to overcome the silent treatment, and how you can create an atmosphere that promotes emotional courage to talk through strong feelings.

Understanding Why Children Stay Silent

For caretakers wondering how to get a child to open up about feelings, it’s good to reflect on the underlying cause—the “why” behind your child’s silence.

These early formative years are hard, and children are still learning how to identify, process, and express their feelings. This learning curve varies depending on the child, and it’s influenced by factors such as:

  • Stage of development
  • Individual personality
  • Surrounding emotional environment 

What may at first seem like a child’s defiance or lack of trust may actually be caused by an inability to regulate emotions or access the communication center of the brain. 

Fear of Judgment or Repercussions

Especially in early school years, children are prone to developing fears or anxieties. But rather than being scared of the dark or monsters under the bed, these fears can sometimes manifest in what they say (or rather, don’t say).

At times, a child’s silence is because they’re worried about getting in trouble or feeling misunderstood. 

What can caretakers do? Here are three steps that might help:

  1. Watch your child’s body language for signs of fear or anxiety, like tensed shoulders or widened eyes—especially when they’re asked a question directly.
  2. Try to identify patterns in the silence, such as whether it's only in public locations, at school, or after a difficult situation.
  3. Gently reassure your child that they won’t be in trouble for expressing their honest feelings.

If you notice your child is chatty at home, but clams up when stepping outside, it may be worthwhile to seek a professional opinion. An anxiety-based condition, such as selective mutism, could be involved.1

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Lack of Emotional Vocabulary

Sometimes, children want to communicate but simply lack the vocabulary. Emotions like “disappointment” or “anxiety” can be hard to put into words—even for an older child.

One strategy that can help develop emotional literacy is naming emotions and discussing them in everyday situations. 
For example, if your child seems agitated during homework, you might comment, “It looks like that math problem is making you feel a little frustrated. Is that right?” Expanding and affirming their emotional vocabulary in this way can help empower future expression.

Another common issue many children face is when they have to process mixed feelings. Sometimes kids refrain from speaking or expressing themselves simply because they don’t understand why they might be feeling two different emotions (this is even an issue in adults!). 

An example of this is when a child wants to go to the party because they like to play at the park and see their friends, but they also don't want to go to the party because they’re  afraid that they might see a clown there and they’re afraid of clowns. Since it can be difficult to parse out mixed feelings, many children tend to stay quiet and uncommunicative. 

Overwhelmed by Emotions

Like anyone, children sometimes get too flooded by emotions to articulate them. Feelings like frustration, anger, or sadness can build up past coherent explanations. 

When emotions flood our systems, it overrides the language center of the brain that actually knows and understands vocabulary around emotions. So even if your child knows the word “angry” and can describe it while they’re calm, their body and brain may go into a fight or flight (also known as freeze phase), or even an emotional reaction place when they’re angry. That’s why they are unable to access that knowledge and express themselves at that moment. 
When this happens, it can be easy to accidentally minimize a child’s feelings with phrases like:

  •  “It’s not a big deal.” 
  • “You’re overreacting.”
  • “Stop getting so upset.”

But these phrases can upset your child and make them feel shame. Instead, help your child see that their feelings are valid and that they’re loved and accepted as they work through them.

Creating a Safe Space for Communication

By creating an atmosphere of trust, understanding, and acceptance, you can help your child feel more secure and willing to express themself. 

Let’s talk about a few specific ways we can lay this groundwork for healthy emotional development:

Establishing Trust and Security

For children to spread their wings emotionally, they need a safe nest to return to. Secure attachments are vital for mental health, especially when big feelings swoop in. As a caretaker, you can foster such an environment in simple, consistent ways:

  • Keep meals healthy, regular, and sufficient for their age
  • Maintain predictable routines, like set bedtimes
  • Care for emotional needs with regular reminders of your love and support
  • Prioritize your well-being and emotional needs as a caregiver, allowing you to more effectively address your child's needs

Such reliability builds reservoirs of trust to draw upon when challenging situations arise. By putting these small habits into daily practice, parents help children feel seen and secure.

Non-Verbal Communication

When children can’t fully express themselves in words, it can be helpful to watch for non-verbal cues behind the silence. A small frown and shrug in response to your questions may convey emotions still churning inside.

During these times, activities like drawing and play can offer a fun, relaxed space for communication. Not only can their creativity spark topics for conversation, but it can also give deeper insight into what’s going on in their mind.

Encouraging Open Communication

It’s a delicate balance: Giving them a safe space to express themselves while also reading the communication they are giving you.

While figuring out how to get a child to open up about feelings isn’t always easy, there are some strategies that can help:

Patient Listening and Empathy

As caretakers, our first instinct may be to solve the problem immediately, prodding our children with questions. You want to understand their feelings, but how can you do that when they just won’t open up?

Two words: Patience and empathy.

If your child refuses to talk when upset, here are how those qualities can help:

  • Patiently recognize that you may not be able to solve the problem immediately—and that’s ok.
  • Offer your full presence through active and reflective listening—eye contact, positive body language, and acknowledging statements.
  • Without interrupting, aim to demonstrate empathy with phrases like: “That sounds frustrating,” or, “This seems really hard for you right now.”

When appropriate, you may choose to follow up with gentle, open-ended questions like “Do you want to tell me more about what you’re feeling?” or, “What could help you feel better?” 

Help your children see that it’s safe to unpack their feelings and that you’re truly interested in hearing what they have to say.

Offering Alternative Forms of Expression

For reluctant verbal communicators, you might try suggesting other constructive outlets, such as: 

  • Drawing
  • Writing letters
  • Playing
  • Keeping a feelings journal 

These can serve as both an emotional release and a way for children to express themselves without the need for direct conversation.

Visual aids, stories, and roleplay can also help children identify elusive emotions. Such activities allow feelings to unfold through colors, symbols, characters, and storylines.

Modeling Effective Communication

Children learn a great deal about how to interact with the world around them by observing the adults in their lives. This means the way parents and caregivers communicate—both in times of calm and conflict—plays a crucial role in shaping a child's communication habits.

Let’s take a look at specific aspects of modeling effective communication:

Sharing Personal Experiences

Humbly share times you struggled with big feelings as a child—or even now as an adult. Frame emotions as human experiences everybody has versus something to hide. 

Here are some tips for sharing personal experiences in an age-appropriate manner: 

  • Use simple, clear language tailored to your child’s age.
  • Be honest, yet reassuring—not hiding negative emotions, but also acknowledging that feelings don’t last forever.
  • Connect your emotions to specific situations, helping children model good reactions and understand the context of your feelings.

Of course, we also want to take care not to overwhelm them with heavy content. When discussing resolution and coping strategies, remember it's okay to share with your kids instances where you didn't handle things well, but highlight the lessons learned from those experiences. This helps them understand the value of striving for improvement without being too hard on themselves for occasional setbacks.

Narrating The Incident

If you witness an upsetting trigger, proactively help your child replay and process the event. Gently recounting what happened step-by-step helps them analyze their inner experience. 

Try asking them guiding questions like: 

  • “What thoughts were going through your head then?” 
  • “How did you feel when they said that?” 
  • “Is there anything you’d like to try if something similar happens again?”

Such questions encourage children to explore and articulate their emotions, fostering a deeper understanding of their experiences.

Encourage Your Child’s Self-Expression With Slumberkins

If your child refuses to talk when upset, you’re not alone. But many caretakers have successfully overcome these challenges, and you can, too.

As your child navigates big feelings on their journey to emotional maturity, Slumberkins’ plush toys and storybooks can provide comfort, empathy, and creative inspiration along the way.

With characters representing a challenge children commonly face, like Lynx’s lessons in self-expression, each Slumberkins story models self-understanding, emotional intelligence, communication skills, and more.

Find the Slumberkins friend that fits your child’s needs today.


Sources: 

  1. Baskin, Amy. "Selective mutism: What to do when your child won't speak." Today’s Parent. Updated 6 JUly, 2016. https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/kids-health/what-to-do-when-your-child-wont-speak-2/
  2. Morin, Amy. "How to Help a Highly Emotional Child Cope With Big Feelings. " Verywell Family. Updated 25 April, 2021. https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-help-an-overly-emotional-child-4157594
  3. "Emotional Literacy in Children." Connectability.   https://connectability.ca/2021/01/05/emotional-literacy-in-children/



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