We’ve all been there. Your child gets upset, turns, and stomps away. Along with their angry stomping steps, you hear: “I’m not talking to you!” as they slam the door for emphasis. Kids' and teens' actions can be downright confusing.
- They might shut us out and then seem hurt that we didn’t respond.
- They ask for help and then get mad when we try to help them.
- You don't know what upset your child, but you can TELL they're upset and won't talk to you about it.
So, what’s the deal? No one has all the answers. However, in our many years working with families as an adolescent psychiatrist and a family therapist, we’ve learned there are a few key reasons kids and teens may not talk to you directly when they’re upset.
- They are too overwhelmed to put things into words.
- They are trying to keep the peace or protect you from their hurt feelings.
- They are upset with you and aren’t sure how to handle it, given how much they love you and depend on you.
We've found that when their emotions are overwhelming, upset children often want something, even if they’re not ready to share it. Here are some things they might be trying to communicate when they're upset but not talking to you.
7 Things an Upset Kid Wants But May Not Tell You
We all get shut out by our kids at some point. Thankfully, how we respond can turn these moments of tension into some of the best opportunities for connection.
1. “Please know I’d rather talk to you – even when I try to convince you otherwise.”
Parents are, and always will be, the people kids most want encouragement and understanding from. They just need the right conditions to open up. In the toughest of times, some parents believe that only an expert can help their child. But quite often, what kids really want is for their parents to get a bit of guidance to find the way in.
2. “Please listen for a while longer.”
The number one request of almost all kids and teens is for their parents to spend more time listening to what’s going on for them before offering solutions or advice, even when the answers seem obvious. Though they absolutely recognize your good intentions when jumping in to try to make them feel better or suggest a “fix,” kids really value the space to think out loud and try to sort out their feelings.
A few extra minutes can go a long way.
3. “Please trust me to start working this out and offer as much help as I need.”
When they do need their parents to offer support to solve problems, there are varying levels of what will be most helpful.
This is part of the development of healthy independence, and the formula can evolve over time. To find the “right” amount, parents can try offering some options i.e. “Would you like me to just listen, help you think of solutions, or give some possible ideas?” and then encourage their child to choose.
4. “Please don’t blame yourself when I am upset or shut down.”
Because kids love their parents beyond measure, the self-blame of a parent can be tough for a kid to bear witness to. Even though expressions of self-blame can be a way to show remorse, care, and concern, it can also lead to the child feeling like they need to reassure their parent or hide their pain so as not to hurt them more.
5. “Please tell me the truth when I ask if you’re upset.”
If you are genuinely upset, while it’s not appropriate or helpful to share all of the details with your child, do be honest about your feelings and encourage them that ultimately it’s going to be ok. Your child’s nervous system is wired to yours, so if you pretend there’s nothing going on, they might feel anxious because they can feel something is up, causing them to lose trust in their instincts. It also really helps kids and teens to see that adults have hard times too, and that it’s just a part of life.
6. “Please don’t give up when I shut you out.”
If you sense your child is upset about something but isn’t talking, you can put into words educated guesses based on the wishes above to break through shut-down and silence. For example, you might say something like, “I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me right now because the last time we tried, I was a little quick to offer solutions. I’m thinking what you might have needed first was for me to listen and try to see your perspective.” In other words, you can always circle back and open the conversation again for a do-over. And it’s never too late.
7. “Please see the good in me.”
Kids worry that their parents will be disappointed in them when they make mistakes, and often more so than they let on. They often blame themselves even when they act like they don’t really care. They might even worry that they are “bad kids” if they routinely struggle to meet expectations at school or at home. When parents can still see the good in their children and communicate this, kids are more likely to remember the good in themselves. They also develop the skill of accepting healthy accountability or making amends if needed.
It may not always be possible to get to the bottom of what upsets your child. However, responding to your child’s upset feelings by trying to meet unspoken wishes, at least some of the time, can go a long way toward strengthening your connection and making them feel supported and cared for.
In our book, What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers, we expand on these ideas and show how to put them into action for many of the most common and challenging parenting struggles with kids and tweens.
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