Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Teaching Emotions: Engaging Non-Emotionally Expressive Children

One of the simplest ways to communicate with children is by talking to them about their experiences. So what happens when children are unable to use language to express their feelings? 

Communication involves relationships. Whether children are actively verbalizing their emotions or not, engaging with them builds the relationship and opens the door to verbalized communication. Parents can engage non-expressive children by imitating their actions or mimicking their behavior, mirroring facial expressions, matching responses to sensory stimuli (e.g., touch), or giving words and other descriptions (e.g., colors, sounds) to feeling states verbally or through pictures and drawing. This is quite significant, as it demonstrates to children a sense of being understood and allows them to take the lead in non-verbal expression. Non-verbal communication may feel, initially, like a much safer means of expression for some children. For children who have trouble sharing their inner world through words, it is important to physically engage them and not abandon them at a time when verbal communication is not an available means of expressing emotion.

There is meaning behind children’s struggle to express emotions. By disengaging, these children are conveying a message. They are demonstrating that it feels better and safer for them, right now, to retreat than to verbally express their inner state of being. There are many reasons why this might be challenging, such as fear of one’s own feelings and others reactions to them, insecurity, uncertainty, not feeling safe or in a supportive environment, etc. By staying with them physically and emotionally, these children continue to establish a nurturing relationship with their parents. Children may not be immediately responsive to their parents’ attempts to engage them and may avoid contact if the engagement feels intrusive but a connection is still being made. Children need to feel that their emotional experiences will not be discarded or lost if they let another person into their emotional space. Once they feel safe and understood in their relationships, they will be more open to sharing. 

It is an understandable concern for parents when children are not able to express their emotions in words. However, there is great value in providing an emotional space that supports relationship building, as this alone has the potential to diminish some of the children’s anxieties, fears, and concerns. This space helps children sort through their feelings in a way that is safe and reassuring and, in time, encourages verbal expression.

Posted by Asya Brodsky, LSW, CADC


Bonovitz, C. (2003). Treating Children Who Do Not Play or Talk: Finding a Pathway to Intersubjective Relatedness. Psychoanalytic Psychology 20 (2), 315-328.