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Time To Talk Day – Getting Kids With SEN To Open Up

‘Time to Talk Day’ takes place on February 1st and is now in its tenth year. Organised by mental health charities ‘Mind’ and ‘Rethink Mental Illness’, the aim is to encourage people of all ages to share their thoughts, feelings and challenges with colleagues, families and friends. In turn, people can also consider offering a ‘listening ear’ to someone else going through a hard time. Being more open about life’s difficulties, campaigners say, can help us all to feel more supported and able to cope.

Children also have their own worries and sadnesses but may not know how to talk about how they’re feeling. Meanwhile, teenagers are notoriously reluctant to share their inner world with the adults around them. And if young people have special needs, there can often be additional obstacles getting in the way of helpful discussions.

Language Can be Processed Differently

child and parent being happy together

Kyra Hall-Gelly is a psychotherapist and Co-Director of ‘Neurotribe’, an organisation that specialises in offering therapy to neurodiverse people and their families. She says that when talking to young people with autism, for example, it’s often helpful to use unambiguous language that can’t be misinterpreted. It’s also useful, she adds, to break down complex concepts into bullet points.

“But most importantly,” she continues, “listening to young people, repeating back to them what you feel you have heard and understood, asking them if you have understood them correctly, and inviting them to tell you where you got it right, and where you got it wrong, is a respectful, compassionate and equitable way of communicating. By doing this we are modelling a great way of communicating with others.”

And because youngsters with ADHD, autism or sensory processing challenges can be over-stimulated by noise, smells, lights or too much visual stimulation, a calm, neutral environment is the best place to help a child to ‘open up’ or even just chat.

Sign Language or Visual Aids Can Help

Colleague Qetnefert Jeffers, also a psychotherapist, points out that children who are non-verbal or who struggle with language might need specialised help to communicate their thoughts and feelings. “They may need sign language programmes or other equipment to communicate effectively,” she says. “What equipment they will need depends on where they are, who is communicating with them, and what environment they are in.”

Young people with SEN can also need assistance with identifying feelings, Qetnefert continues. “Finding out what the emotion is, maybe where they feel it in their body and if it relates to something that’s actually happened is helpful. Try identifying the emotion and talking about its context and situation and helping the child to think about possible triggers (what makes them feel like this).

“You can ask them how the emotion affects them. For example, does it make them want to shut down and hide away in a corner? Or does it make them want to do something else? This leads to understanding how the emotion ‘presents’ for them. The same emotion can present differently for different people.”

Body Language Plays a Part

Kyra points out that it can be easier to talk to a teen when you’re doing something side-by-side rather than facing each other. Chatting on a car journey can be helpful, she says, as can sitting next to each other in a café. This is especially relevant for autistic youngsters who struggle with eye contact.

She adds that there are great resources available that can help to improve the whole family’s emotional literacy. One example is an ‘emotions wheel’ – a circular diagram that depicts a wide range of feelings and how they relate to each other. “You can buy physical ones or find versions on the internet to print out. Using them yourself, as a parent, to talk about your emotions can encourage young people to identify their own using the wheel.

“Being open about how weird, silly or difficult it feels for you to do this at first is also helpful! Laughter is a great motivator. Regularity and consistency are key here – model using this lots of times, and don’t expect a teen to take it up immediately. The emotions wheel can be used with younger children too.”

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