It can be upsetting as a parent when your child just won’t tell you what’s wrong. So what can you do to encourage them to confide in you?
As a parent, you often feel as though you should be some kind of superhero to your child, and know what to do in every situation. Your instincts often tell you to sooth all their fears and worries, whilst making sure they have their 5 a day, get their homework done, take a shower and get lots of fresh air and exercise, whilst balancing other household jobs and work… anyone else feel like it’s an impossible job being a parent sometimes?!
Sometimes, having a child who won’t talk to you about their problems can make you feel like a failure in your parental duties. If you are feeling like this right now, I truly want to help you – it is a terribly heart wrenching position to be in. I know, because I’ve been there myself. For the last 4 years, I have been relentlessly supporting my anxious eldest son through his journey of school phobia and social anxiety. For the most part, it has made me feel like an absolutely terrible mother – I have never been able to shake the feeling that I should be doing better, and I felt like I had let him down. I could see him suffering, and despite my very best efforts, I could not make him feel better. I blamed myself.
Admitting that he needed outside help was very hard for me at first, because I felt that as a child ‘expert’ as well as his mother, I should have known the magic cure. I suppose it was a mixture of my own anxiety about being judged negatively as a parent, and accepting there was a very real problem affecting my son. I knew he needed help, although he could not articulate what it was he was struggling with as a sensitive and shy 7 year old – it was painful for me to see him struggle.
Fast forward 4 years, and a range of support services including mental health support, play therapy and counselling, I can finally see the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. We still have a long way to go until I can feel assured that he has the self belief and sense of worth that he should have, but his confidence is growing by the day. I have also come to terms with the fact I have always done my absolute best and it was not my fault that he went through this, and I want to help you realise this is true for you too.
These are my reflections of what my son and I have experienced over the past few years – what I have learned now that I wish I knew back then, as well as how my son now explains how he was feeling when he could not articulate his worries properly. I really hope our experiences helps you in some way:
Try not to force your child to open up to you. It can be tempting to question your child when you know something is wrong, asking them the same question in different ways. But this can feel overwhelming for a chid who is struggling, and can add to their pressure. When talking about his journey, my son tells me now ‘back then I couldn’t answer what was wrong because I didn’t know what was wrong, and it made me feel bad that people kept asking me’. It’s great to show care and concern, but when it feels like ‘pestering’, it can cause children to withdraw even further. (More techniques for not being so forceful with your child can be found here)
Be there for your child. By spending quality time with your child in a very playful and relaxed way, you are giving them the opportunity to talk to you (even if they never take it). It will also help to make your child feel reassured that you are available to talk if they do choose to confide in you. My son has told me recently ‘I just liked being with you because it made me forget I was worrying about stuff and I could relax’. (Here are some ways to encourage your child to talk)
Do not blame yourself. As I have already mentioned, this is something that was very hard for me to come to terms with. But IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT! You are doing the best you can do, and you cannot take away the worry from your child’s life, nor did you cause it.
Give positive praise when your child does open up, even if it’s something very small. Some things can seem very small to us parents, but can be huge to your child. If they do tell you a worry which seems very minor to you, make sure you still let them know how proud of them you are and recognise that it may have been difficult for them.
Try not to belittle the small stuff. If your child tells you something which you consider to be quite insignificant, try not to let your child know you feel this way. Phrases like ‘is that all your worried about?’ and ‘don’t be silly!’ teach your child that their worries are worthless and will eventually mean your child will be much less likely to tell you about the bigger worries they have. I confess that I have been guilty of saying things like ‘don’t worry’ to my children in the past, which I meant to be kind and reassuring, but I now understand it can feel like the exact opposite of that to a child and can make them feel like you don’t care about their concerns. (Here are some things your child might be trying to communicate to you when they cry)
Try not to overreact. In contrast to my previous point, it can also be unhelpful to overreact to the things you’ve heard from your child. For example, if your child opens up and tells you someone has been mean to them in class, and then you storm into school and kick up a fuss over something that turns out to be a very minor issue, they may become more unlikely to confide in you for fear of your extreme reactions. (If you find it difficult not to be a reactive parent, read these ways to stay calm when your child is being difficult)
Provide them with lots of different ways to communicate. The more ways to express their feelings that your child has, the more likely they will be able to express them. For example, if your child enjoys art and craft, they could paint a picture about how they are feeling, or if they like music they could listen to music that feels like what is inside their head (or compose some). My son found it helpful to have a nice notebook and pen next to his bed, and at night when he was worried he would write down what was concerning him. (Click here for activities you can do alongside your child which offer relaxation and time to talk).
Encourage them to build positive relationships with other adults and children. The more caring and nurturing people your child has around them, the better chance they have of feeling able to open up to someone. The older children get, the more important their friends become to them, so try to encourage your child’s strong friendships and social skills, especially if you have an older child. (See my related post on promoting social skills in children here).
Don’t be afraid to make a change. If something isn’t working for your child, sometimes a change is needed. My child could not articulate the stress he was under at school as a younger child, but there was a clear problem for him there. I let it go on for far longer than I should have in hindsight, but eventually I realised he could not continue in this school and something just did not work for him there. We moved house and moved schools, and it was the best decision I ever made for his wellbeing. (For tips on raising happy children, read this other article)
Educate yourself, and your child. If struggling to open up is something your child struggles with often, there is no harm in reading around how to support your child in more depth, as well as supporting your child to learn about how they are feeling. For parents I highly recommend a book called ‘Overcoming your child’s fears and worries’ (available here https://amzn.to/3gpxzIg), which used cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to support your child to face their fears. For children, I recommend getting the book ‘What to do when you worry too much’ (available here https://amzn.to/2TGbonh) – it is quite long, so better for slightly older children, but it explains anxiety and worry very effectively for children.
Realise that only they can truly fix their problems. I spent far too much time blinded by love and emotional ties to my son that I could not see for a long time that he did not need me to fix things for him, but instead he needed me to support him to be able to cope on his own. I didn’t realise that trying to fight his battles actually portrayed the message to him that I didn’t believe he could cope with it himself. Now, I understand that children need empowering to realise that can face their own challenges, by providing them with the skills to handle situations themselves.
Consider that your child may need more support than you can give. Sometimes, try as you might, you just don’t know how to support your child in the best way. This is not a sign of weakness or defeat! It is a very powerful and courageous move, and nobody is judging you negatively. I recommend you go to see your doctor as soon as possible if you are worried about your child – waiting times can be quite long for mental health support.
Remember, it may feel bad now, but you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Keep your spirits up wherever possible, and believe in yourself as a parent – you can do this.
Love, Heather x
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