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Connecting With Your Withdrawn Child

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By Jamie Roach

What do you notice shifting inside when your teenager once again refuses to share what they are feeling? How does it feel to get significantly fewer hugs and less overall physical affection from your 8-year-old than you do from your other children? Or what do you make of the fact that your oldest never seems to ask for help, even though you can see they clearly need it? If you notice these or similar tendencies, you may have a child who tends to withdraw.

Last month, as we looked at the anxious or clingy child, we discussed the developmental task of differentiating and how important and challenging developing a sense of autonomy can be. This week, we want to take a closer look at the flip side of autonomy: connection or relatedness.

Autonomy and connection are two sides of the same coin. An important aspect of healthy human development and spiritual development is the ability to be both autonomous and connected. In the book of Corinthians, Paul goes to great lengths to talk about this important concept. In 1 Corinthians 12, he writes, “Each of us (autonomy) is now a part (connection) of his resurrection body.”

Last month, I mentioned the growth edge for the clingy child is found in strengthening their sense of autonomy and helping them differentiate, learning to trust and accept themselves. With the withdrawn child, growth typically happens as they learn to trust others, believing others are safe and can be relied upon.

When the child who has developed an adaptive strategy of withdrawing asks themselves, “Will others be there for me when I need them?” the answer they feel arising in their body, often outside of conscious awareness, is “No.” Therefore, rather than open themselves up to others, they tend to keep their emotions bottled up inside and turn toward themselves for the help they need.

 

6 tips for helping your withdrawn child connect with their own feelings and you:

  1. Get in touch with your own feelings and needs. Model vulnerability and talk about what you are feeling.
  2. Be present. Show up for them in a warm, compassionate, connecting way. Connecting through eye contact, smiles, hugs, physical touch and other non-verbal ways of communicating is essential.
  3. Tune in to your child’s emotional needs and feelings. Remember, connection before correction. Don’t get hung up on their behavior. Be curious and look for the emotional need/desire driving the behavior.
  4. Gently nurture the fragile tendrils for connection and emotional expression. When they do express a need or an emotion, reward it without overdoing it!
  5. Soothe yourself when you are feeling rejected or abandoned by them.
  6. Repair ruptures in your relationship quickly. Presence-centered parenting is not about being perfect. There is no such thing. It is about seeking re-connection whenever you sense you have become disconnected from them.

 

Love overflows. As you sense God holding you in love, you will be in a better place to hold your child in love. Take time to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). To know God is to know God loving you. First we are loved and then we love. God loves us first. Knowing God is holding us in love enables us to remain integrated when our child is withdrawing. Rather than taking it personally and getting upset, we are able to remind ourselves that we are loved and worthy of love. We can then attend to our child in love.

Next month, we will continue our series on anxiety by taking a look at what has historically been called the “disorganized child” in the research literature. Children with a disorganized coping strategy are sometimes clingy and other times they withdraw. It’s hard to know or predict how they will react to stress. Follow along in July to learn more about this form of anxiety and how we can best love and support our kids and teens through it.

I welcome your thoughts as you follow along through this series on anxiety. Send me an email with your questions and comments.

 


Get to know Jamie Roach: Jamie has served on the staff of Youthfront for 35 years, working with students, parents and youth workers. His passion is seeing people live their best life. Jamie is a spiritual director, author, communicator and Licensed Professional Counselor. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts in Counseling from Mid-America Nazarene University. Jamie loves Nebraska football, reading, walks in the woods and hanging out with his family. Jamie and his wife Lea Ann have four children: Megan (29), Haley (27), Logan (24) and Sophie (21).

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