Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Won't You Talk To Me?

This specific approach helps the child take his or her walls down.

“Being there” means more than managing car pools, preparing meals, cheering on the sidelines, and producing stellar birthday presents. It means being there for a child when he or she is worried, hurt, disappointed, discouraged, lonely, or ashamed. Yet children often hide these emotions from a parent especially in the teenage years, so how is it possible for a parent to be there for a child who pushes the parent away?

Frequently, children have difficulty verbalizing hurt, shame, disappointment, or anger. Instead, the child may these feelings act them out, appearing agitated and snapping at parents and siblings, decompensating over seemingly benign events, or emphatically denying that there is anything wrong and retreating behind a screen or bedroom door. Serious signs that something is very wrong include a chronic inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, a pervasive lack of appetite, school avoidance, and a refusal to participate in activities previously enjoyed. In this situation, it may be helpful to explore counseling.

But with the correct approach, a parent can help children with underlying issues even if the child seems to have a wall up. The first step is the parent tuning into the feeling state the child is acting out. If the child is angry, slamming doors, snapping, or yelling, and it is not because they are upset about the enforcement of an expectation or a rule, there may be something additional going on. Instead of immediately correcting the child’s behaviors, the parent should first identify the child’s feeling state. After the parent identifies the child’s feeling state, they can quickly correct the negative behavior. For example, “You are mad. I can see. You probably have a good reason and I want to hear about it, but you can’t slam your coat down. Please go pick it up and let’s talk.”

By identifying the feeling for the child, the child feels understood and recognizes their own feeling state. When a child recognizes his or her emotional state, they are more apt to verbalize how they feel instead of act it out.

Say a child exhibits intense frustration regarding an ordinary circumstance. For example, a 10-year-old girl is hysterically sobbing because she can’t find her t-shirt. A parent’s first impulse is to help her locate the shirt or to utilize the situation as a teaching moment and remind the child to keep her room clean. Yet, the very first thing a parent should do is identify her feeling state. “You are upset. So upset.” After identifying the child’s feeling, the child is then able to recognize it for herself and talk about it. “I can’t find my t-shirt and I need it because the kids make fun of my other shirts.” Now, a parent is getting somewhere and has something with which to work.

After a child verbalizes a feeling, the parent should avoid fixing or teaching and instead empathize. “That hurts. It’s got to hurt when kids say mean things like that. I’d be hurt too, and I’d want to wear the right t-shirt. I get it.” When the child feels understood, they feel less alone, closer to the parent, and more likely to open up and elaborate about their problems. A child who feels understood is typically more amenable to suggestions, encouragement, and advice.

Take a child who complains about a stomach ache before school on a Monday morning. If there aren’t additional physical ailments, the child may be experiencing a psychosomatic symptom. In essence, the child may feel worried, but isn’t able to verbalize it, so the worry manifests itself in a physical symptom. If a parent can identify and resonate with the feeling, the child becomes aware of it too and is able to talk about it.

For example, a 9-year-old boy complains to his mom that his stomach feels weird. His mom rules out the flu and suspects it’s a little bit of anxiety. She gently says to him, “Mondays are hard. I get a funny feeling in my stomach too.” The little boy feels understood and less alone and asks, “Your stomach feels yucky on Monday mornings too, mom?” The mom replies, “Yes, honey. A lot of people feel it. Mondays can be overwhelming.” As soon as the little boy realizes he is not alone, he feels relief and security. He gives his mom a hug and runs off to the bus stop.

Another example involves disappointment. Say an adolescent boy fails to make a baseball team. After try-outs in the car, he is quiet and refuses to talk. Purposefully, his dad avoids sentiments like, “shake it off” or “practice more,” and instead identifies and resonates with how his son is feeling. “You are disappointed. I would be too.” Suddenly, the son feels understood and less alone, which allows him to eventually open up.

Later that day he approaches his dad and opens up about feeling weaker and smaller than the rest of the boys his age. His dad empathizes with how hard it is not to feel strong and powerful. He tells his son a story about his own disappointment after he was cut from the wrestling team when he was 11. The son feels less alone and much closer to his dad who seems to have gone through something similar.

Although this approach makes sense to parents, the worry is that they will get the feeling wrong. However, identifying the feeling incorrectly actually encourages the child to be additionally self-reflective. The child may say “No, that’s not it. I’m sad, not mad.” This process requires the child reflect on how they feel. Reflecting and recognizing the feeling is the goal, so even when the parent misreads a feeling, the result is usually positive. The child acquires self-awareness through the process of thinking about how they feel and distinguishing his or her emotional states.

When a child is struggling, tuning into the child’s emotional state and gently identifying their feeling helps the child recognize it themselves. When a child has insight about what they are feeling, they are more equipped to talk about the emotion, instead of acting on it. This also allows the parent to empathize and help the child when they open up. Empathizing with the child’s feelings is one of the best ways to help the child feel less alone, closer to the people who truly care about him or her, and more able to problem solve and tackle his or her issue confidently. It also helps a child grow to be self-aware and emotionally secure.

More from Erin Leonard Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today