4 Things Kids Say That You Should Never Ignore

Experts say these phrases are a big deal — and they’re worth your attention.

Sometimes kids tell you what they need directly while other times you need to put some effort into understanding what’s going on. A young child, for example, may not have the language they need to articulate what they’re feeling, but a teen may be evasive because they’re anxious about confiding something personal.

It’s not possible for you to foresee every tricky scenario that your kid will bring to you or even know exactly how to respond in that moment. It is your job to listen to your child, to make space for them to tell you what they’re feeling and to reach out for more help when necessary.

For guidance, we asked a number of mental health professionals what phrases kids say that you should never ignore. Here’s what they had to say.

Statements About Their Identity

Your child may want to disclose something to you about who they are. Dr. Michelle Forcier, a clinician at Folx Health, an LGBTQ+ health care provider, told HuffPost that kids may say something like:

  • I want to talk to you.
  • I have something important to share.
  • Do you have time to ...
  • Would you love me no matter what?
  • I think I might be ____ (gay, bi, pan, trans, nonbinary, etc.)

In these cases, listen attentively to your child, thank them for sharing this with you and reaffirm your love for them.

If they approach you at a moment when you can’t talk, make sure your child knows that what they have to say is important to you.

“Even when you are busy, look them in the eye and say, ‘I hear you and want to hear more. Can we wait 20 minutes until I am off the phone with ... then we can sit down and in private have all the time you need to talk and for me to listen,’” advised Forcier.

“A child sharing deeply personal information or self-truths is a true gift,” she continued.

Kristin Wilson, a licensed professional counselor with Newport Healthcare, told HuffPost: “The fact that your kids are coming to you with a struggle or issue that they’re facing really speaks volumes to your relationship. They brought up the topic because they feel safe with you.”

You should thank your child for sharing this with you and show them how much it means to you by giving them your full attention.

“If you do not honor this gift by making time and room for it, your child may not choose to try and share again,” Forcier said.

Statements About Feeling Low

If a kid is struggling socially or with their self-image, they might say things like:

  • I hate myself.
  • I hate my body.
  • I’m dumb.
  • I’m lonely.
  • I don’t want to go to school.

If the issue is anxiety or some other stress, they could say something vague, such as:

  • I’m scared.
  • I’m worried.

It can be hard to differentiate life’s regular ups-and-downs from something more serious, so it’s important to ask follow-up questions and get more information.

“I would encourage parents just to lean in to find out what might be the source of stress,” Chinwé Williams, a licensed professional counselor, told HuffPost.

She added that parents sometimes equate “I’m lonely” with “I’m bored,” but the two statements can mean very different things. Williams suggested following up by saying, “That sounds really hard. Can you tell me more about that?” It could be that a child is missing a particular friend. Or they may feel a more general kind of aloneness. Another way in, she said, could be offering “Can I tell you a story about that?” Talk about a time in your life when you felt alone (or whatever your child is feeling), and then ask your child, “Is that do you feel? Do you feel something similar to mom (or to dad)? Tell me about your experience.”

Parents should keep in mind that “something which seems trivial to you may be meaningful to your child,” Elisabeth Kane, a psychologist at Children’s Nebraska, told HuffPost. But this doesn’t need to get in the way of listening to your child, validating their feelings and offering support. You want to set a precedent that you will do the same with any other problem they might bring you in the future.

“If your child makes an unusual or self-critical comment and you aren’t sure if you should be concerned, clarification is always a good first step,” Kane said. A comment about trouble with a friend, for example, might be an indication of bullying or simply normal peer conflict. You won’t know until your child tells you more, and they may not share until you ask.

Statements About Self-Harm

You aren’t likely to miss these kinds of statements, but it can be hard to manage your own reaction when your child says something like:

  • I want to die.
  • I just don’t want to be here.
  • I have no reason to live.
  • I wish I’d never been born.
  • Everyone would be better off without me.
  • I wonder how many people would come to my funeral?

This last one, Williams noted, is something a teen might say with a smile on their face, sending you a mixed signal. Likewise, kids will sometimes say things like the statements above or say “I hate my life” when they are experiencing some sort of temporary distress. You’ll have to ask questions and dig deeper to figure out how serious the situation is.

“Your child may not directly say that they want to hurt themselves, but they may say something like ‘I wish I didn’t have to deal with this’ or ‘My friends would be better off without me,’” Kane said. In such cases, it’s important for parents to encourage kids to clarify and explain, saying, for example, “What do you mean?” “What makes you say that?” or “Can you tell me more?”

Parents sometimes worry that by asking their children directly about suicidal thoughts, they may somehow introduce these ideas, but experts say it’s always better to ask.

“You will not put these ideas in their head by asking. However, asking these questions provides a critical opening for you to help them if needed,” Kane said.

Williams recalled one teen who signaled the hopelessness they were feeling by saying, “What’s the point of all this?” It was a vague statement, but it was enough for an attentive family member to realize that they needed help.

Statements About Secretive Or Potentially Inappropriate Relationships

You don’t need to know all the details about your child’s social relationships, and teens will want some privacy around romance, but if anything they say about a friend strikes you as strange, it’s a good idea to turn to those open-ended, curious questions.

“If your child makes comments about having secrets with another individual or hints at an unusual relationship with them, especially with other adults, this could be a potential indication of harm and is important to follow up on,” Kane said.

Other Signs Your Child May Have Something They Need To Talk About

Of course, not every sign that your child has something to tell you will be verbal. Especially with young children, feelings of anxiety or stress may manifest in physical symptoms, such as stomachaches. You may also notice clinginess in younger children as well as a regression to previous behaviors, like bedwetting or thumb-sucking.

With older children, other signs may include “significant changes in mood, decreased energy level or withdrawn behavior, changes in sleep and eating habits, frequent physical complaints, coming up with excuses that don’t make sense, avoidance of things they usually enjoy or sudden hesitation associated with typically ‘normal’ activities,” Kane said.

“You know your child best; trust your gut. If you notice something that seems off with your child, you can always ask an open-ended question to start a conversation,” she added.

When your child does say something that alarms or concerns you, you can respond using these steps:

1. Take a deep breath and try to remain calm. These worrisome kinds of statements “need 100% of your attention,” Wilson said. “So whatever else is going on, it needs to come to a screeching halt.” At the same time, you need to try not to panic so you can give them the support they’re looking for. “You want to give them your full attention. You want to create space for them to be able to explain what exactly is happening, asking open ended questions, allowing them to narrate their story, their experience for you,” Wilson added.

2. Validate their feelings. “That sounds really hard” is one phrase Williams suggested. She noted that validation doesn’t mean that you agree with them, simply that you see their feelings as real.

3. Ask open-ended questions. These should also be non-judgmental. “We don’t want to be interrogators. We don’t want to push too hard, especially with teenagers,” Williams said. Kids don’t like to feel like you are trying to lead them toward a particular interpretation. “A goal is to allow the child to express their thoughts, express their concerns, their feelings,” Williams said. Open-ended prompts like “Can you tell me more about that?” can be helpful. You also don’t want to jump in right away with potential solutions. As parents, Williams added, “there’s a tendency to go into problem-solving and offer advice.” But this may not be what your child needs. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask them directly if they want advice or just want you to listen. Another impulse to avoid is saying, “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK,” Wilson said. It’s all right to admit that you don’t have all the answers. “Even if you are not sure how to respond to a child’s questions or needs, ensure that you will figure it out together,” Kane said.

4. Thank them for telling you. “You want to thank them for coming to you with such big feelings, hard stuff to talk about,” Wilson said, and to encourage them to do so again in the future.

5. Consider your next steps. These could be a follow-up conversation or check-in a few days later. Or you may feel the need to take action right away. “Ultimately, I always tell parents, if it feels big, your gut is always right,” Wilson said. “The national crisis hotline is easily accessible for parents by dialing 988. You’re able to talk to a live, trained counselor 24/7, and they’ll be able to give you some action items to put into play.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

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