Paradox: Helping Kids Talk About Unpleasant Feelings

A challenge I run into when talking with kids about their feelings is that most children want to please the adults in their lives. It is natural to want the people around you to be happy, and this is extra true for kids because they might associate upsetting adults with getting into trouble.

If I fully and truly did not care about pleasing the people around me, I likely would have been fired from every job I had after about two days. It is normal and good to want to avoid upsetting the people around you.

But, as with everything, preoccupation with how your choices will make other people feel can be problematic if taken to an extreme. I often see this play out with children hesitating to tell their parents the truth about their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors if they think the honest answer will upset them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

There are a number of processes that could contribute to a child feeling they cannot be honest because they want to please adults. Some include:

  1. You asked if I cleaned my room. You want me to have cleaned my room, so I should say that I cleaned my room (not stopping to think that you will know very quickly if I’m telling the truth).
  2. If you know that I’m sad, you will feel sad, and then we will both be sad. If I tell you I’m happy, at least you will be happy.
  3. You told me I have been doing such a good job lately, and if I tell you that I messed up, you won’t be proud of me anymore.

It’s common for therapists to have kids explore their feelings, and sometimes we see pushback when negative or unpleasant emotions are brought up (*Note* feelings are not good or bad, but they can definitely be uncomfortable).

To counter this, I will assign children a paradox: “I want you to tell me about something that you think will upset me to hear.” The contradiction is that, in order to do what I’ve asked (and therefore, in order to make me happy), they have to share something that I will not like (and therefore, make me unhappy). It’s uncomfortable and takes practice, but this can help kids let go of their hesitancy to share things that they think you will not like.

How do you help kids share negative feelings?

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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