How Do You Help a Kid Who Shuts You Out?
You’ve heard people say, “I want to get this off my chest,” but what if your kid doesn’t know how to express emotion? How do you get children and teenagers to talk? Dr. Lisa explains the term "emotional regulation," and how parents can help kids manage their feelings effectively. Reena asks, "What if you’re a parent who struggles with managing your own emotions?" Lisa explains how both parents and children can benefit from thinking in terms of learning how to express, and contain, emotions.
September 7, 2021 | 24 min
Transcript | How Do You Help a Kid Who Shuts You Out?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 46: How do you Help a Kid Who Shuts You Out?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: So, I love ice cream in the summer, but I found after Labor Day I’m still eating ice cream because it’s the one way to get my kids to talk. I take them out for ice cream and the whole world opens up.
LISA: So, that’s awesome, first of all I love ice cream. Like when you say the world opens up, like is it the car ride there? Is it while they’re eating the ice cream? Is that all of the above? Do you walk there?
REENA: I don’t know. I don’t know, and I think it’s a problem sometimes when school starts you want to get more information so I found that was a good way to do it. We got a letter, Lisa, from a mom who asked a similar question about her son and she says: ‘Dear Lisa, what do you do when your 11-year-old doesn’t want any input or questions and you know they’re struggling. My11-year-old shuts me out when he’s struggling with something even if it’s just us asking a simple question like how are you doing with this? Do you keep asking questions or give them space? Do you come back to it? Please help.’ What should she do, Lisa?
LISA: Well it’s interesting, Reena. So, you’ve figured out ice cream works to get your kids talking.
LISA: And you know so often, and on the podcast, too, what we’re talking about is when kids are kind of melting down when they’re overflowing with feeling and thinking about a couple weeks ago and you’re telling us about your daughter, you know, when you guys were in Florida and her coming and just being saddened and telling you about it, and I think there are a lot of parents who like, I wish my kid were melting down. I wish my kid were coming and telling me what’s making them upset. I can tell that they’re upset and they are all clammed up, and it’s one of those things that probably doesn’t get the air time it deserves when we’re thinking about how to support parents. I think we’re so often helping address feelings when they seem to be spilling all over the place and not talking enough about how we get kids to get the feelings flowing.
REENA: So I have to tell you I loved your article in The New York Times that you wrote. It’s called “How to Support Teenagers as they Head Back to School” and you talk about emotional expression and containment. Tell me a little bit more about this. I loved this article.
LISA: Well this article is right down the middle of what this mom is struggling with, and you know I was thinking about like what’s the piece I can write that will be helpful as kids go back to school and they have a ton of different kinds of feelings, right? I mean there’s just so much right now the kids might be feeling, and what I thought would be useful to bring across in the piece and we’ll talk it through here is that when psychologists think about emotions, and especially when we think about negative emotions, we don’t ever think about like how to get rid of stuff them. Like that’s not really what we think is actually possible or necessary. What we’re always interested in, but we’ve done a terrible job of sharing with everybody else, is what we call emotional regulation, and regulation is basically a two-part process, which is that sometimes you regulate emotions by expressing them, by talking about what you’re feeling, and sometimes you regulate emotions by containing them, you know, kind of shutting them down a little, which sounds like a bad thing but can really be a good thing. Like if you’re, you know, really, really worried about something and you’re getting stuck in your thinking and you’re not feeling better the more you think about it taking a break, distracting yourself, is probably a good idea. What I get to win the piece, and what comes up in this question, is the issue of extremes, or when kids need help. So sometimes kids need help containing emotion, so we might say, you know what? Why don’t you just leave this alone for awhile, come back we’ll talk about it later, and then there are kids like this one in the letter who need help expressing emotion, bringing their emotions across to get some relief, and we really do feel that way. You know we talk, and we have all these terms like getting things off your chest, airing it out, you know, dumping your feelings. There is something in those terms that gets at a real thing about how it’s not good for us to carry around distress. It’s not good to keep it all stuffed down, that there’s true benefit in getting stuff that’s on the inside and putting on the outside because usually it just feels better when you’re not harboring it so much. But it’s not easy. Ice cream doesn’t work in every family.
REENA: It’s not easy, and especially if teens are known for sort of clamming up and not wanting to talk to you, what do you find works to get them to open up? I’m guessing it’s not ice cream.
LISA: If it’s not it’s not ice cream it’s got to be something else. So, let’s think of something else. Okay so the giant heading on all of this is don’t put them in the hot seat, right? I think that this mom writes, you know she says to this kiddo, you know, like how’s it going? What’s going on? Doesn’t get an answer and she’s like, should I keep asking? I would say no, right? You’re already getting a pretty clear signal from the kid that like they feel on the hot seat with that and a kid who doesn’t want to talk about feelings, putting them in the hot seat, saying to them like, tell me what’s going on, I’m really curious, doesn’t work as much as we wish it would work. There are ways to do this that are kind of common to family life. You know I was curious when you said you guys go for ice cream. Often it’s those times when you are walking or driving or not looking at each other or it’s a short drive so they know you can’t get that intense of a conversation, that you can get kids going, but the thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, and it this didn’t come up in the article, you know sometimes I write a piece and then I just keep thinking about it. I have more thoughts.
REENA: I love that.
LISA: I do too. I do too, and it’s fun because we get to think about it, you know, together. We have to appreciate that there’s a wide range of ability to name feelings. That there are some kids who are really, really comfortable with that. They’re really fluent in that. They can detect the internal weather system that is our feelings, and then they can distinguish this weather pattern from that weather pattern and they can say this is anxiety and this is the anticipation, and they can come to us and say, I feel this. I feel nervous. I feel worried. I feel excited. But they have that comfortable fluency in taking this kind of nebulous experiences that are feelings and converting them into a concrete word. Some kids are really great at that and some kids are still getting used to that, and so I think we forget sometimes that when we’re asking that question you may be asking something and it’s not that the kid is holding back or holding out on us. It’s that they are not yet sure what to say about what’s happening inside of them.
REENA: You also talk in the article that preventing what you call emotional floods, and you say, ‘serve as a sandbag.’ What do you mean?
LISA: So those are the moments when the kid does know what to say, and they’re saying a ton, and that’s just like a meltdown moment where they’re really upset and they may be crying, and they may kind of be overwhelmed, or overwrought. For me those moments are where we want to be really patient and really calm, and bluntly, Reena, like not freak out. Because I think so often what happens is a kid is pretty overwrought and that’s very scary as a parent and so then we kind of panic, and in our panic we offer suggestions or try to get it to shut down or we communicate that we’re frightened by their intense emotionality, and it’s all understandable and it’s all well meaning and it usually doesn’t help. So, I think calm, patient works for meltdowns, and then calm, patient also works for the kid who struggles with expression, and you’re saying, you know, what’s going on? Are you okay? What’s happening? And you’re getting nothing. I was thinking, Reena, I was thinking about the kids who can’t always have the words, or don’t always have the words, I was talking with a teenage boy about what it felt like inside, and this is a kid, who is beautifully expressive, he’s a musician, this kid is an incredibly talented musician, and he said, oh my feelings? They feel like static, and I thought wow. Like what an extraordinary way to say like, oh yeah there’s something happening but it’s not a signal I can detect. It’s noise. Like it’s noise I can’t tell you the signal, and the parent’s asking for the signal. So, we need to be mindful of that. That kids don’t, they have the noise, they may not have the signal. The other thing about the hot seat is it gets to questions of processing speed, which is not something we talk about that much, but one thing we know in cognitive psychology, the study of sort of mental processes, is that people think at different speeds, and it’s fairly divorced from questions of intelligence, which is to say you can be a very smart person, a very deep thinker, who thinks in a very methodical and slow way, and so you can have a comparatively slow processing speed. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart. When we do roll up the overall IQ score, processing speed factors into that because we do make a distinction between people who know a lot and are fast, and people who know a lot and take more time, but when we say to a kid, what’s going on? How do you feel? We have two assumptions built into that question. One, that the kid is good at naming what’s happening inside, and two, that they can do it quickly, and those are not assumptions that hold for a lot of kids.
REENA: Do you find, though, does intelligence correlate at all with how you process? I know you said it doesn’t necessarily, but is there anything you can detect, like if you have a super smart kid, does it mean that they’re just, could likely be or have a greater chance of not being able to process as quickly your emotions?
LISA: You know it’s probably all pretty independent. You know you can have a kid who is a smart, really, you know, smart’s a complicated word, but has a strong intellectual endowment, at least for what we measure at school, who think slowly, which may be pretty separate from their ability to name emotions because that’s quite, actually it’s quite an achievement to be able to name a feeling. These can all operate separately, but once we start to tease them apart, right? Your kid may be bright, your kid may process at a slower or faster rate, your kid may or may not be able to name emotions very quickly or, you know, accurately yet. What the take home here is give them time, and one of my favorite things to do for kids who aren’t all that flowing, for any reason, is to do things like say, I was thinking about this. Let’s talk about it later. You know I was wondering what school has felt like so far. Let’s talk about it later. So that they have a long interval to get ready for the conversation.
REENA: I never want to do that. I want to talk now. I don’t have eight hours from now. I’m like, okay you know what? My schedule just opened up. Let’s talk about it now. How do you feel? I attack.
LISA: That’s Because you have a fast processing speed, and you are ready to have that conversation. But the other thing, Reena, you could do, or a parent could do with the kid who has a cellphone is you drop them a text. This is my new favorite thing. So you send them a text and you say, like I know you seemed a little bit like, you know, not yourself lately. How’s it going? Or is there anything I should know?
REENA: Ooooh. That’s good.
LISA: It is good because think about all of the problems it solves. First of all, it slows it way down. So, a kid who needs more time has more time. They can get back to you. It’s an asynchronous communication, as we would say these days. Second of all, if they aren’t sure what the feeling’s called it also gives them more time to start to figure out how to name what they’re feeling, and then in texting you back it does, in a good way, force them into using language, and we want, that’s what we want, right? The goal is the kids tell us what they’re feeling, and in that text conversation that can happen.
REENA: So, this is incredible. This is like, for me, a mind blowing moment because I’ve always thought of texting as bad, like sexting, and now you come up with this whole genre of texting that could be so transformative for parents. There’s got to be a name for this like parent texting, or I don’t know what the name would be.
LISA: Oh, we’ve got to think of a name. You know what you remind me of? This is a complete digression. There was a point a few years ago where middle schoolers referred to pencil texting, which is what they meant when they wrote notes back and forth to each other. It was so funny. They’re like, you know we call that pencil texting. I’m like, passing notes? That’s what we called it.
REENA: We need our listeners to come up with the term for this because this is so good because it allows you to give them time to process it instead of jumping down their back.
LISA: Exactly. Exactly, so I think that’s a trick that can be helpful. The other thing I would recommend is to ask, the term we use in psychology is displacement. So, you’re not talking directly about the kid, again this is under the headline of keeping them out of the hot seat, so you could also say to a kid, what are you hearing from other kids about how school feels right now? Or what are kids saying about what they’re worrying about right now? What’s on everybody’s minds these days? And so you’re asking kind of obliquely, you know sort of to the side, and so then you’re getting a conversation going about feelings but you’re not saying to them, kiddo, what’s going on? How do you feel? And that can be a good way to help them bring words across about how they’re feeling inside.
REENA: You know my elementary-age kids loved, loved, loved the Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” about feelings. There was just something that really resonated with them and hearing you talk about how to get them to understand sort of emotions. What conversation should you be having with kids of all ages to get them to understand the importance of talking it out without seeming nagging or annoying. Like what’s important for them to really grasp and understand?
LISA: Oh man, this is awesome. Well starting with that movie “Inside Out.” What a gift that movie was because it helps parents do what we want our kids to be able to do, or it helps parents support what we want our kids to be able to do, which is having names for feelings and that seems so basic and obvious. That’s a huge big deal, to be able to say, I feel sad. I feel angry. I feel, what with the other characters in there?
REENA: I’ve forgotten. I think sadness.
LISA: Disgust I think was one.
LISA: That labeling of emotions is what we want our kids to be able to do. So, honestly, Reea, as you’re talking about this I’m thinking, man if you think it is really clammed up, see if they want to go watch “Inside Out.” Just in that kind of displaced way of you know, there’s a whole bunch of feelings and actions.
REENA: Right. Right.
LISA: But the thing I would say, if we want to cultivate this skill set without putting kids on the spot, what we can do is use in front of them a very well-developed feelings vocabulary. That we are like a thesaurus for emotional terms. So when a kid says anxiety they probably mean apprehension, uncertainty, worry, nervous, excitement. I mean they can mean a whole lot of things, and they have their beginner vocabulary for emotion, and we have an advanced vocabulary for emotion, and, you know how your kids seem to manage to learn every swear word you say in front of them.
LISA: So take that skill set and use it for feelings, right? So it’s not like you’re teaching your kids swear words. They hear them when they learn them. So it’s the same thing.
REENA: That’s interesting that they model, but to that point, Lisa, what if you’re an adult and you have trouble managing your own emotions. Like we’re all living together all the time, right? It’s an intense living environment right now. What if you’re a parent who’s struggling to regulate your own emotions. What do you do?
LISA: Well that’s a teachable moment, as we say, so let’s say, you know, a parent loses their cool and acts out in ways they didn’t mean to, or says stuff they didn’t mean to. Then you go back and you do two things at once. First of all, you apologize. You know you say, okay I was super upset and I went about that in a way that was probably upsetting to you and I owe you an apology, and then you do a vocabulary lesson. You say you know I realize what happened is I became very, very frustrated because I was feeling uncertain about something that to me felt really important and it made me worried to not have the information I needed. Okay, so you’ve just done frustrated, uncertain and worried, are now on the table. They are now in the vocabulary of family life, and so any opportunity you have, especially if you’re talking about yourself, again, the kid is out of the hot seat. Any opportunity you have to continue to bring nuance to the naming of the weather systems that we all carry around inside of us. You are modeling it, you are teaching the language, you are giving good examples of, I felt this. We call it that. I felt this. We call it that. That’s what we want for our kids is a sophisticated language to describe their inner worlds.
REENA: Wow. I’ve got to say one of the things you’ve transformed from my own parenting is the power in apologizing when you’ve got it wrong. I’ve gotten so many points with my kids by doing that, and I think before you and this podcast I had a very baathist, sort of Saddam Hussein iron fist where it’s like, it’s me and that’s it, and there’s such a value, I’ve really noticed in saying, you know what? I screwed that one up and I would apologize for my behavior.
LISA: Well, it’s interesting because there’s a huge amount that gets accomplished in that, and the reason parents don’t do this, from what I understand, is they feel that it’s going to undermine their authority.
LISA: Right. That they’re going to lose some of that iron fist. Here’s the deal: kids, and certainly by adolescence, they already know you screwed up, and so if you don’t own it that’s how you undermine your authority. You actually maintain your authority by being like, you know what? That, I was out of line. Here, I am not. So, it’s necessary to maintain authority.
REENA: Wow. That’s good.
LISA: And then the other thing, Reena, I will tell you, you know the number one worries we hear about are parents worrying about what’s going to become of their relationship with their kid when their kid becomes a teenager.
LISA: The number one way I see parents blow it is they want on their shortcomings and mistakes because what teenagers do, they are they are pros at pointing out our shortcomings and mistakes, and they’re usually right, and the most painful transactions I have watched between parent and teenager is when the kid is pointing it out and the parent can’t tolerate it. That’s how you really have a hard relationship with a teenager.
REENA: Wow. That is so good. Wow. So many little gems today, Lisa, so many gems, but before you go, one more gem. What’s your parenting to go?
LISA: My parenting to go is that we are not afraid of feelings. We are not here to prevent painful feelings. We are not here to banish painful feelings if they show up. We are here to support regulation, help kids express feelings, help kids contain feelings, help them to manage feelings. That is as good as it gets, and there is a lot we can do to help that happen.
REENA: That’s great. And, Lisa, we’ve got some incredible things to tell our audience about. You are going to be with Dr. Fauci and The New York Times on September 9th, Thursday at 1 p.m., talking about kids and COVID.
LISA: It’s true. We’re doing an event at The Times. The event will be Dr. Anthony Fauci answering questions about kids and COVID, and then Apoorva Mandavilli, who’s a science reporter, and I will have a moderated conversation that will be moderated by Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is also another journalist at The Times, again answering questions about kids and COVID. So, subscribers to The Times can sign up for this. We’ll put the link to it in the show notes, and it’s 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday September 9th, so I hope to see you there.
REENA: I look forward to it. I will absolutely be there, and I also wanted to say I’ve launched a new daily news podcast Monday through Thursday. It’s called the Recount Daily Pod, and the first thing they said to me when I joined was can we get Dr. Lisa on the podcast? So we got you on the podcast. You’re talking about stress and trauma, so I’ve got that in the show notes. You can subscribe and hear all about your conversation on stress and trauma as well.
LISA: And, Reena, I love that conversation. I love the Recount Podcast. I do feel like you’re cheating on me, but, you know, it’s good. It’s worth it. You do such gorgeous work over there, and I loved our conversation because I think there’s so much to say about stress and trauma in the lives of adults, and, you know, what we talked about also applies, in many ways to kids, and teenagers, but we really got to do a deep dive into stress and trauma and how it operates and what we know about it, and I just, I really value that conversation so much.
REENA: You’re so great with mental health. I just, on so many levels. It’s always been the best compliment is when people say they don’t have kids, and they listen to our podcast, and by the way, next week, our next episode will talk about kids and drinking, and how to approach that conversation. I’ll see you next week.
LISA: I’ll see next week. Can’t wait.