How to Use Affect Labeling to Talk to Kids About Inappropriate Behavior Online

By Doug Noll, JD, MA
September 26, 2023
Mother talking to son on couch

At times, you may have to address challenging topics with your child. Maybe they are having a big outburst because you caught them watching an inappropriate video. Maybe you learned your child has been bullying others online. These conversations can be transformative, rather than difficult — if you know how to have them. 

The internet is complicated, especially for kids. Complicated situations can lead to big emotions and outbursts. You must have open, empathetic, and understanding conversations to guide your child. One tool that can make these conversations easier is called affect labeling, a technique I teach that focuses on labeling and recognizing emotions. 

Let’s delve deeper into how to harness this tool when having difficult conversations with your children. 

How affect labeling works with digital parenting

Affect labeling is the act of identifying and verbalizing emotions. It's about listening to the speaker, discerning their feelings, and reflecting them back to them in a neutral manner. 

This form of listening is invaluable in validating feelings and establishing a deep emotional connection. Here’s how to do it:

1. Calm yourself using affect labeling

Recognize and label your emotions before diving into a conversation with your child. For example, you might say to yourself, "I’m frustrated and annoyed that Sarah has been on some dangerous websites. I feel disrespected and ignored. I’m nervous and worried that she might hurt herself.” 

Labeling your emotions and feelings can help calm you down. Brain scanning studies show that affect labeling diminishes the brain's emotional centers while activating executive function.

2. Open the conversation with an open-ended question 

Initiate dialogue that encourages your child to share. For example, let’s say BrightCanary alerts you that your child was looking at an inappropriate website.

You might start with, “I saw that you were on [website]. Tell me about that.” Your child will naturally be defensive and may deny visiting the site — this is normal.

3. Your only response is to validate their emotions

You might say, “You are anxious and nervous. You’re a little scared. You’re feeling a little bit guilty and embarrassed.” Pause and watch your child’s reaction. Let the silence work in your favor. 

Do not criticize or judge them. Now is not the time for consequences. Your job is to create emotional safety for your child.

Eventually, they will acknowledge their feelings. Ask another open-ended question, such as, “Tell me about what happened.” 

When they respond, reflect their feelings and emotions. Do not comment on or talk about the substance of what they did.

Here are some more examples of using affect labeling with your child.

The power of the right conversation: Affect labeling in action

Here’s an example of an effective conversation with affect labeling: 

Child: "I like talking to my friends on this game. It’s fun because they help me win."

Parent using affect labeling: "You feel happy and supported when your friends help you in the game. That must be a nice feeling." 

Child: "Yes, it is! But sometimes people I don't know message me."

Parent: "That must be unsettling for you. Tell me more about that."

This conversation establishes trust and understanding. By reflecting the child's emotions, you show empathy and guide the child — without invoking fear.

As a point of comparison, here’s an example of a disastrous conversation:

Child: "I like talking to my friends on this game. It’s fun because they help me win."

Parent: "You shouldn’t be talking to anyone online. It's dangerous. You could get us all in trouble!"

Child: "But they're just my friends ..."

Parent: "You don’t know that! Stop being so naive."

This approach invalidates your child and, as a result, makes your child feel emotionally unsafe. The judgmental tone can deter your child from sharing in the future, depriving them of your guidance when they most need it.

Key points to remember about affect labeling

  • Ask TED questions: Probing deeper with the questions "Tell me more," "Explain to me more," and "Describe for me … ” encourages elaboration.
  • Do not judge, criticize, or invalidate your child: Foster an environment of trust and understanding.
  • Only problem-solve after creating emotional safety: Address the issue only after establishing a safe dialogue.
  • Go back to your digital device contract (or create one now): Revisit your agreement to address how to handle inappropriate content.
  • Avoid assumptions: Don't assume what your child feels; let them express it.
  • Steer clear of judgment: Avoid phrases like "You shouldn’t ..." or "Why did you ..."
  • Validate, don’t invalidate: Recognize their feelings. Use phrases like "You feel ...” or "You seem to be feeling ..."
  • Avoid “I” statements and passive voice statements: Avoid reflections like, “What I sense you are feeling is …” Avoid passive voice when reflecting, such as “It seems like you are angry.” Finally, avoid asking your child how they feel, such as “Are you angry?” or worse “What are you feeling?” Keep your emotional reflections short and direct with “you” statements.

Now that they’re calm, now what?

Once your child feels calm and safe, you can move to problem-solving. 

If you have a digital device contract, use it to inform your conversation. For example, if your child violated their agreement to ask you for permission before downloading a new app, you can point out that section of the contract, talk about personal responsibility, and discuss consequences.

If consequences are justified, they should be negotiated. You can ask, “What do you think the consequences for violating the agreement should be?” You will be amazed at how tough children are on themselves. 

If you have a child who wants an inappropriately light consequence, you might say, “Well, that’s interesting. Here’s what we’re going to do. You can choose either [consequence X] or [consequence Y]. Which will it be?”

By providing a choice, your child is still empowered. And they learn that proposing a light sentence will not work. This lesson in personal accountability is critical for your child’s growth.

If you don’t have a digital agreement, this is probably a good time to create one — here’s a free digital device contract template from BrightCanary.

Who knew parenting in the digital age could be so complicated?

Past generations spent time outside playing with neighborhood friends. They learned about the dangers of their neighborhoods, people, and places by experience, plus the help of siblings and friends. Today’s kids are the first generation to be fully enmeshed in the internet. 

They go online to be entertained, to connect with friends, and to learn. They don’t have guides to teach them the ropes. Modern parents must take up the role of teacher and guide, even though they didn’t have the same childhood experience.

Fortunately, the role is manageable with some forethought and planning. If you take the time to educate yourself and your child, create agreements, and learn how to validate your child’s feelings around their online experiences, you will help your child become a competent and powerful digital citizen.

Doug Noll, JD, MA, is a professional peacemaker, writer, and mediator. Doug has studied human conflict for over 45 years and worked as a lawyer for over two decades. Learn more about Doug’s work at

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