The scene plays out in slow motion.
You watch helplessly as your daughter trips on a laundry basket and launches her freshly-glued art creation across the room.
Hours of hard work lay scattered on the floor.
She is devastated.
Coming to the rescue you attempt to scoop her into a big supportive hug.
“Get away from me!” she yells.
Feeling confused, you step back and try again.
“Oh honey, your project, I’m so sorry -”
She interrupts, “Leave me alone!”
Within seconds, she’s gone and you’re standing in the debris wondering what just happened.
It’s no fun to be pushed away by a hurting child. Especially when you are doing your best to connect with your kids in their sad, angry, or dark moments.
It’s also easy to be triggered by their response:
“Fine! I was just trying to help.”
“Don’t you dare slam that door!”
“I can’t do anything right.”
What starts out as a heartfelt longing to comfort your kids, can quickly become a competition of big feelings – theirs…and yours.
Of course, you’d love for your child to come running to your arms every time there’s a problem, but it’s ok if they don’t.
The goal here is to support your child through their big feelings, it’s not to stop these big feelings altogether.
What to do when your kids refuse to be comforted.
Instead of getting caught up in the emotion of the situation, try these 6 strategies:
- Acknowledge and Release the Rejection: It’s ok to feel hurt when your child rejects your connection but don’t stay there for long. Do some deep breathing to get back on track. Your child still needs you, they just have a different idea about how you can support them in this moment.
- Expand Your Options: You may think of comfort as a giant bear hug or snuggling on the couch, but there are lots of ways to connect with your kids that go beyond physical affection. Experiment with different ideas, such as being quiet, standing nearby with arms open, writing a note, being silly, or giving them time alone.
- Tune In To Their Needs: Look at the situation from a place of curiosity, rather than taking offense. This gives you the chance to realize what works best for your child. Do they prefer verbal comfort or non-verbal? Do they want to talk about things right away or cool down first? Do they need physical affection or space?
- Watch For the Rebound: Sometimes, your child will reverse their decision about accepting comfort. Even if they initially reject a hug, they may hover nearby, ready to take you up on it a few minutes later. Or, your child may say that they don’t want to talk but leave their bedroom door open as a symbol that they really would like company.
- Resist the Punishment: Instead of yelling, “how dare you talk to me like that, young lady,” take a second to pause. Realize that your child’s brain was completely flooded with emotion in that moment. The logical part of their brain was shut down, so the words she used weren’t coming from a place of logic, but out of overwhelming emotion.
- Teach Later: If the words or actions your child used when they were upset are offensive, rude, or inappropriate, find a calm time to talk about it (not in the heat of the moment!). Empathize with their frustration or sadness, then share how you felt. Talk about different ways they can ask for space or time, and what you can do when they are upset.
What if nothing seems to work?
Sometimes, no matter what you try, your child continues to refuse your attempts to comfort. There are a few reasons a child may continue to push back.
- Lack of connection: Acknowledging big feelings can be a vulnerable experience for some kids. If they don’t feel safe and secure in your relationship, they may choose to keep these feelings to themselves.
- Past experiences: While you are working to change your responses, your child may remember previous interactions where mistakes were turned into lectures or big feelings were punished.
- Shame: Sometimes, their response has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with your child’s view of themselves as flawed. In an attempt to hide from this imperfection, they shut down or shut out offers for help.
- Negative Thinking: Even if the situation was an innocent accident, a child who struggles with negative self-talk may get “stuck” in this pattern, unsure how to see the situation in a different (much less positive) light.
- Mental health concerns: If your child displays signs of irritability, low motivation, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, increasing isolation, or if you notice any other changes in mood or behavior, for longer than a few weeks, seek support from a mental health provider.
Rather than chasing after her, you decide to let your daughter have some time alone to cool down.
A few minutes later, she slowly returns to the room.
You try one more time, opening your arms, offering a hug.
She rushes for you, tears streaming, “I worked so hard on that project!”
Safe in your arms, finally accepting comfort.
It’s worth the wait.