TRANSCRIPT: Your Parenting Long Game Episode 106 – “When a Child Won’t Talk About Their Feelings Or Point Of View”
Welcome to episode 106, where I’m going to talk about what to do when a child isn’t a big talker, isn’t opening up, or isn’t responsive when you ask about their feelings. I realize that many of the techniques I teach — Yuck dumps, Joint Problem Solving, even making deposits — require your children to respond when you talk to them about what’s going on for them. But what if they don’t respond?
Today I’m going to share 3 reasons why your child might not be opening up and what to do in each case. Before I get into those reasons, if you enjoy this podcast, I’d be so grateful if you’d rate, review, and subscribe. For me to reach other parents with the tips I share, I need those reviews and subscriptions… and I really do want to help as many parents as I can! I also do read what you write in those reviews, and I truly appreciate them.
For now, let’s jump into the reasons that kids tend not to respond when we want to talk to them about how they feel about things.
The first reason: They don’t want to open up because they don’t want to deal with our reaction when they DO open up. Think about this: Who do you open up to? And how do they usually respond when you do open up? I don’t know what you’re going to answer, but the people you open up to probably do something to make you feel safe. Many of us don’t make our kids feel safe when they open up.
First, they don’t necessarily want to hear the long lectures that many of us give. They don’t like when we talk for too long or try to teach them something. If you’re trying to teach them all of the reasons they need to pay attention in math class, they will tune you out. And even if you only lecture every once in a while, they may avoid other conversations for fear that that might keep happening.
They also avoid reactions that are too big … so if you ask them about a video game they’re playing and we make a bigger deal out of it than they think it should be — even if it’s a positive reaction, like “Hey! You got to level 5?! Wow!” believe it or not, they may shut down. Why is this? When I was a therapist, many kids told me that they can’t even deal with their own emotions… they don’t want to have to deal with ours as well.
They also may not open up if they think we don’t get their feelings or don’t care. Kids want us to listen. They want us to get how they feel without trying to change it. They want to feel safe with what they’re telling us. For example, let’s say you’re asking your child to do a Yuck dump. You’re asking them what frustrates them about their sister. If you start to justify another position that is different from theirs, saying, “Well the only reason your sister did that was…” and trying to convince them to see things differently, they’re not going to open up.
So what do we do? I did an episode on what it looks like to TRULY listen, and I’ll link to that. But one key is to keep quiet and try to jump into their world, to see situations from their perspective. This means that you’re not seeing their world from your world (you’re not saying, “I know you don’t feel like doing your homework, but it’s a part of life…”) Instead, you’re seeing your world from their world — what it’s like to be a 3 year old, 8 year old, 16 year old who has to do homework that may be hard for you, or boring…or whatever else it’s like in their world. To be in their world, just listen. Take a look around their point of view. Don’t come into their world and try to change it right away. Don’t try to fix it. Just be there for a few minutes. Look around, get a feel for the place. If there’s something you want them to hear from you, try to tell them AFTER they’re done talking, after they feel like you get them. And even then, make sure they know that you’re working through things with them, listening to their point of view and considering what they have to say… not trying to convince them of something. So if they say, “My sister annoyed me when she came into my room,” Say, “Yeah, I can see that. Hmm, we probably can’t keep her out. Let’s figure out ways to deal with it that respects what you’re saying too”. You can set limits and boundaries and still be in their world with them.
Now the second reason they may not tell you what you want to know is that they don’t know how they feel or why they did what they did. Let me give you an example. Mom Sam asked her son Chad about school almost every day. She was disappointed that he didn’t usually respond to her. She wanted to know what he enjoyed and what he didn’t enjoy. She even asked him “specific” questions (as she’d been advised to do) — like what did he like about recess or what he didn’t like about his teacher. She always heard “I don’t know.” Well, Chad really didn’t know what he liked or didn’t like. He wasn’t someone who thought about how he felt very much. He thought about the next time he could see his friends or the next level on his video game. He didn’t think about how he felt about school. Often kids simply don’t think about the things we want to know about, especially when everything seems to be going fine for them, or they’re just trying to get through the day.
So what do we do? We can help them learn the language of feelings. As a therapist I had to teach even adults about understanding and communicating their feelings. Here’s a strategy I used that you can use too: First, when I was asking someone to describe what something was like, I’d start really generally — asking them if something was positive or negative. “How was your day? Pos or Neg?” Then, after I’d worked with them on that for a week or two, I’d move on to LEVELS of positive or negative — Was it little negative or a lot negative. Then after a few more weeks, I’d start to bring in new words — were you angry or frustrated? There are charts with different pictures of emotions that you can buy that help differentiate one feeling from another.
Another strategy I used with kids is to start with what I thought they were feeling — anger, frustration, disappointment, and read books with them about others who were feeling those feelings so they’d get used to talking about emotions they could relate to.
Again, many kids need help with this. Making it fun helps. But remember, don’t talk too much (hopefully you learned that above). And do set your expectation that the third possible reason for kids not opening up may also be true…
So what is that third reason? It’s possible that they simply aren’t “verbal processors.” Some people don’t process their feelings through talking. Using words doesn’t help them deal with what they’re going through, so it’s not just that they don’t know HOW to express feelings; it’s not effective for them to express them. They may process feelings through sports, or art, or music, or writing. And when we try so hard to get them to talk to us, they shut down. It’s almost like if you’re not good at math, and someone tries to get you to use math over and over to connect… you’ll start to resist that person. The person who’s requesting you to do math may feel better when you do math together, but you don’t. So YOU may feel better if a child talks about how they’re feeling or what things are like for them, but they don’t like to do that.
So what do we do? We get into their world with them. We ask them to create music, or a piece of art, or writing. Or we throw a basketball around with them. We show them that we can connect with them in a space that is theirs rather than pulling them into ours. Often once we’re in their world, we should allow that child to use their medium to communicate. Of course we do want to remember not to ask too many questions, but when you do ask questions, it can be things like: “What music would you use to describe how your day was?” or “If you had to draw me a picture of how you feel when you have to go to school, what would it look like?” It’s amazing how much they can communicate when we stop trying to make them communicate the way we want to… and we let them do it in a way they want to.
If you want to take action to motivate your kids to open up more, ask yourself these questions about your child:
Could they feel unsafe, that we are lecturing them, or that our emotions are too big? Do they feel HEARD? Put yourself in their shoes and consider if you’re motivating them, helping them feel safe enough to open up.
You can also ask yourself: Is it possible that my child doesn’t know HOW to open up or how to answer the questions I’m asking? If so, you can start to teach the language of emotions.
And you also want to ask yourself: Does my child need to process whatever I’m asking in another way?
Because when you understand why a child doesn’t open up, you can address that reason and make it more likely that they’ll know HOW to talk to you. And when you make them feel safe, they’re more likely to WANT to talk to you. And when you focus on what they need as much as what you want from them, they’re more likely to ACTUALLY talk to you.
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