How to Effectively Communicate With Kids and Teens

Dad talking to elementary age son on front porch

Resilient kids and teens are better able to handle life’s ups and downs. One way to build resilience in kids is by teaching them how to communicate their feelings and needs. Having regular, open conversations helps kids understand that it’s normal and OK to have any (and all) feelings and to share them with others. 

Here are communication tips from our mental health experts. Try putting these tips into practice daily—during a family meal, a car ride, before bed or whenever and wherever we’re talking with kids. 

Download these communication tips as a printable PDF.

Having open, regular conversations helps them understand it's normal and OK to have and share feelings.

Active listening means giving someone our full attention when they’re talking. It communicates that we're engaged and listening, and that we care about what they’re saying. 

Here are some simple ways to practice active listening with kids and teens:

  • Put away any distractions (such as phones). 
  • Make eye contact. 
  • Have open body language by turning toward the person who’s speaking. Avoid crossing arms or turning away. 
  • Nod as they’re speaking.  


Instead of... Try...
Looking at your phone or the TV. Putting away all screens, and any other distractions, and making eye contact.
Interrupting with advice. Listening to understand, rather than waiting to respond or give advice.
Thinking about what you’ll say next. Being patient, present and listening to everything they say. Let them know you’re listening with your body language, such as leaning in or nodding.

Sometimes kids and teens need help opening up and sharing how they’re feeling. Asking open-ended questions encourages them to answer with more than just “yes,” “no,” “fine” or “OK.”

Instead of... Try...
"Did you have a good day?" "What was the best part of your day?"
"What was the hardest part of your day?"
"You doing OK?" "How are you feeling?"
"Can I help you?" "What can I do to help?"

When we repeat back what someone says, it:

  • Communicates that we’re listening and that what they’re saying matters to us.
  • Allows them to hear what they said and reflect further, share more or clarify, if needed.   

Instead of... Try...
“That’s really interesting.” “It sounds like your favorite part of the day was eating lunch with your friends. What did you enjoy about it?”
“That’s not very nice.” “I hear you saying you don’t like your math teacher. Is that right?”
"Don’t be nervous—I’m sure you did great!” “You’re worried you didn’t do well on your test.”

It can be hard for kids and teens to express how they feel if they don’t have the words. When they're having trouble expressing themselves, using “I wonder” statements with them can help them think about and label their feelings without telling them how they feel.

Instead of... Try...
“You seem really upset.” “When you say you’re ‘upset,’ I don’t know exactly what you mean. I wonder if you’re feeling sad or embarrassed. Are either of those right?”
“Did that hurt your feelings?” “I think I would feel hurt if that happened to me. I wonder, how did you feel about that?”
“You always say ‘I’m fine.’ I need you to tell me more if I’m going to help you.” “I hear you when you say you’re ‘fine.’ I wonder what ‘fine’ means to you?”

When kids and teens are struggling, it may be tempting to dismiss or minimize their feelings to try to make them feel better. But doing that doesn’t make them feel better. It just shuts down the conversation and teaches them not to talk about it.

Instead, when we normalize and validate feelings, we create a safe and supportive environment for kids to talk openly. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to explore their feelings and practice naming and expressing them. 

  • Normalizing feelings, without dismissing or minimizing, communicates that what the person is feeling or experiencing makes sense and is normal.
  • Validating feelings lets them know we understand and that their feelings matter.  

Normalizing and validating someone’s feelings or experience doesn’t mean we agree or feel the same way.  

Instead of... Try...
“Don’t cry. It breaks my heart to see you cry!” “It’s OK and normal to cry when you’re sad.”
“I think you’ll have fun if you just give it a try!” “I understand why you’re feeling nervous. A lot of people feel nervous when they try new things.”
“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine!” “It makes sense that you’re feeling worried.”

Nobody has all the answers or knows how to respond during every conversation. When we're not sure what to say, know that we don’t need to have the “right” answer, and we don’t have to fix what the other person is feeling. They just need us to listen and be honest.

It's important to never force someone to share their feelings. Our role is to create a safe, stable, nurturing space for them to share, and their choice is to decide what, when and how much they’d like to share.

Instead of... Try...
“That’s a lot. You should definitely ________.” To avoid giving advice if you’re unsure, try saying, “That sounds really hard. How can I help?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, but it will all work out!” To avoid minimizing or dismissing their concerns, try saying, “That question is really important. I need a minute to think about that. I will get back to you as soon as I have the answer.”
“I’m not sure what to do with that.” To avoid making the child feel that what’s going on is too big for you to hear, try saying, “I’m not sure I have the right words to say, but I am here for you.”