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Sometimes I’m at a loss as to what to say when my kids are upset. They both seem to need me and be pushing me away at the same time. That’s where the work of adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Ashley Miller, and clinical psychologist, Dr. Adele Lafrance, is really helpful. The authors of What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work (which you can find on Amazon or Bookshop.org) tell us what upset kids want but may not tell you.
7 Things Upset Kids Want But May Not Tell You
By Dr. Ashley Miller & Dr. Adele Lafrance
Your child gets upset, turns and stomps upstairs their room. As you hear the pounding footstep, you also hear: “I’m not talking to you!” Then the door slams.
Kids and teens can act in ways that are confusing. They can shut us out, then seem hurt that we didn’t respond. They can ask for help, then get mad when we try to reach out.
No one has all the answers, but in our many years working with families, we’ve learned there are a few key reasons kids and teens may not talk to you directly when upset: 1) they are too overwhelmed to put things into words 2) they are trying to keep the peace or protect you from their hurt feelings and/or 3) they are upset with you and aren’t sure how to handle it given how much they love you and depend on you. We all get shut out by our kids at different times. Thankfully, how we respond can turn these moments of tension into some of the best opportunities for connection.
Since we dedicate our lives to helping kids open up to their parents, turn to them for support and strengthen their relationships, we’ve put together some of the key messages we’ve learned from kids to help parents navigate this tricky terrain:
1. “Please know I’d rather talk to you – even when I try to convince you otherwise”. Parents are and will always be the people kids most want help 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 parent 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, and 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 it’s time for their parents to offer support to solve problems, at times they may need a lot of support, or just a bit. 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 tough for a kid to bear witness. 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 upset, it probably won’t be appropriate or helpful to share with your child all of the details, but if something is up – do let them know something’s up, including that ultimately it’s going to be ok. Your child’s nervous system is wired to yours and so if you pretend there’s nothing going on, they might feel anxious (because they can feel something is up) or they may 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 – and more often than they let on – that their parents will be disappointed in them when they make mistakes. 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 things go awry and parents can still see the good in their child (and communicate this), kids can remember the good in themselves. It also makes it more likely that they can accept healthy accountability or make amends if needed.
While it may not always be possible to get to the bottom of your child’s upset feelings, responding to their unspoken wishes at least some of the time can go a long way. In our new 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.
About the Authors:
Dr. Miller is a child and adolescent psychiatrist whose specialty is psychotherapy, and she’s also a mother to a teen and a tween.
Dr. Lafrance is a lifespan psychologist who developed a science-based model of family therapy, and she’s also a step-mother.