Have a Deeply Feeling Kid? This Therapist-Approved Hack Will Help Get Them to Open Up

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Deeply feeling kids are just that—they feel all the emotions, ranging from joy to sadness to rage, quite strongly, so much so that it can be challenging to get them to articulate their feelings and open up. But Dr. Becky Kennedy, a child psychologist and the author of Good Inside, has an approach that’s not only effective and flexible, it’s life-changing: Try the thumbs-up tactic. 

We recently caught up with Kennedy as she helped relaunch the newly reimagined LEGO Friends Universe, which features a range of new characters dedicated to non-visible and visible representation—including showing more dynamic emotions—so that kids can explore mental well-being through play.

On the subject of deeply feeling kids, she explained that they often require a bit more care and thoughtfulness when it comes to explaining how they feel.

Here’s an example: Let’s say your child has a meltdown where they’re really upset. Later in the day, when they are calm again, parents can often approach a non-deeply feeling kid and talk through it, opening the conversation with something like, “Earlier was hard. I think you were really upset when your brother had a play date and said you couldn’t play with them.” Per Dr. Kennedy, a non-deeply feeling kid will likely feel really understood by your approach and reciprocate with talking it out.

But with a deeply feeling kid, that’s too intense, she explains, and that’s where her thumbs up tactic comes in. “I like to say, ‘Hey, I want to play a game. You’ve got to close your eyes and I’m going to say something and, if it’s right, you give me a thumbs up. If it’s kind of right, but kind of wrong, you give me a thumb to the side. And if I couldn’t be more wrong, you give me a thumbs down.”

Again, a deeply feeling kid typically struggles to talk about their feelings. This approach gives them a nonverbal out. “Now they’re not making eye contact, which gives them enough distance to feel vulnerable,” Dr. Kennedy explains.

Then, you share that example statement: “Maybe it was a little upsetting that your brother had a playdate and said you couldn’t be in his room.” From there, pause and wait for your deeply feeling kid to reach out from under their bed or behind their pillow to put their thumb up, down or to the side.

Dr. Kennedy is clear—if you achieve that point of connection, with your deeply feeling kid giving you a hand signal as a response, leave it there. That’s enough and plenty, especially as your child warms up to this way of interacting.

You could also try an alternative approach: humor. Before you dig into the statement that illuminates what you believe is really bothering them, you can test the waters with something totally outlandish. “I’d start by saying something ridiculous like, ‘I think you were upset today because you asked me to move to Saturn and I said no,’” Dr. Kennedy says. “Deeply feeling kids love to reject a parent—right away you’ll see that thumbs down that they disagree.” (They may even speak up to correct you!) Still, the goal is to ultimately land on the statement that is accurate and gets them to acknowledge their true feelings.

Bottom line: As a parent, you’re seeking—and encouraging—an opening. If you get a thumbs up, thumb to the side or thumbs down, that’s a win. Take it.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Becky Kennedy is a child psychologist and author of Good Inside, a guide to common parenting challenges. Her work focuses on using mindfulness and emotion regulation, alongside her knowledge of internal family systems theory, to provide a thoughtful approach to raising children.

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