Building Emotional Wellness in Kids and Teens

Like math and reading, emotional skills are taught. Kids need to learn the names for their feelings and how to express them in appropriate ways—talking through them, perhaps, or taking deep breaths. But some kids never learned those lessons, or they need a refresher course.

If your older child or teenager is having emotional problems, take heart. It’s never too late to start the journey toward emotional wellness.

father consoling daughter in her bedroom

For starters, emotional wellness doesn’t mean being happy all the time. It’s the ability to recognize and cope with emotions, good or bad. It’s a lifelong journey as new challenges are thrown our way. “We’re never done. That’s the cool thing about human beings—we’re constantly learning and evolving,” says licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN.

Because even adults are works in progress, anyone can change course. Even children who have experienced hardship can heal and thrive.

mom listening to her daughter

One of the simplest ways to support your child’s emotional wellness is to be a good listener. Kids today are under huge amounts of stress, so it’s not safe to assume you know what your child is going through. When your child speaks, put down your phone. Make eye contact. Repeat back exactly what they said, without judgment, before adding any commentary.

Watch out for your child’s physical health. Is your child eating well and getting enough sleep? Is your family limiting screens in the evening to improve sleep quality? Physical health has a huge impact on our emotional wellness and vice versa.

Most importantly, talk openly about your own emotions. Share how you are feeling (“I’m really frustrated right now.”) and how you cope with it (“I’m going to listen to some music to help me calm down.”). Your child needs to know that emotions are not a sign of weakness and that it’s normal to share your feelings with people you trust.

mom consoling daughter

If they don’t already know the names for their emotions, help give your child the words. But it’s important to ask—not assume—how they feel. You might say, “Are you feeling hurt about not being invited to that party?” Not, “You must feel hurt about not being invited.”

Teach coping skills. Activities like yoga, art, writing in a journal or going for a walk are just a few ways to deal with emotions in a healthy way.

Empower your child to be a problem solver. Learning how to solve their own problems can boost kids’ self-esteem and lower stress. If your child is dealing with a conflict, ask how they think it should be resolved. Give your child the chance to fix it their way, and when you follow up, ask permission before sharing your advice.

dad and son doing deep breathing exercises

Just as we schedule well-child visits to protect our kids’ physical health and wellness, we need to be proactive about their emotional wellness. This goes for kids and parents alike. It’s hard to give your child the support they need if you’re stressed and struggling yourself.

Self-care tips:

  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Step away from screens.
  • Make time to see friends and family.
  • Be physically active.
  • Do things that bring you joy.