The most powerful emotional shield our children utilize when they are suffering is emotional withdrawal. They may withdraw slowly or abruptly, but the overall goal of the withdrawal is to protect themselves from perceived danger in their relationship with us, their parents.
Children can withdraw behind many different barriers, including:
- Physical isolation (e.g. always in a different room, behind a closed door, etc.)
- Emotional isolation (not sharing emotional intimacy with family members)
- Over-committing to outside interests such as friends, activities, and school
- Angry outbursts, verbal attacks, and abuse
- Stonewalling and being uncommunicative
- Sarcasm, eye rolling, slammed doors, etc.
- Hiding behind electronic screens (e.g. social media, gaming, etc.)
- Saying “I’m fine” when it’s obvious they are not fine
Withdrawal is a very common tactic used by children who are experiencing emotional disruption, including when they have or are developing an eating disorder. A child who is protected by withdrawal is less likely to be “caught” and thus the eating disorder is at lower risk of exposure.
Withdrawal is an emotional tactic used by people who are afraid they will not get their needs met in their most important relationships. Rather than confronting this fear, they shut down and pull away from the people who love them. In its simplest form, withdrawal is the execution of the thought “I’ll dump you before you can dump me.” The person who is withdrawing desperately wants connection but is deeply convinced that the person from whom they are withdrawing is unable to love them completely as-is. They may be afraid that:
- If you knew the real me (all of me), you wouldn’t love me
- You don’t really love me
- You don’t understand or respect me
It is important for parents to understand this, because typically when a child withdraws, the parent experiences the withdrawal as a rejection, when in fact withdrawal is a desperate cry for attention.
Many times when our kids withdraw from a relationship with us, we feel the sting of rejection. We think things like:
- My child doesn’t respect me
- My child doesn’t need me anymore
- If my child wanted me around, they would treat me differently
- I can’t do anything right with my child
- My child gets everything they need from their friends
Unfortunately, this causes us to withdraw from our kids, which creates a self-perpetuating loop
- The child is afraid their parent won’t understand, so they withdraw.
- The parent feels rejected, so they withdraw or begin clinging.
- The child feels justified in believing their parent can’t understand them or meet their needs.
The result is that the child and parent both end up feeling unloved, hurt, abandoned, and uncared for. It’s deeply painful for both sides.
When withdrawal gets dangerous
There is a difference between healthy independence and emotional withdrawal. Our children seek healthy independence by gradually doing more and more on their own without seeking our prior opinion or approval. Healthy independent children do not feel ashamed of what they are doing and are not avoiding talking to their parents about these activities. In most cases, healthy independent children will share their explorations into independence in at least general terms with their parents.
When a child is withdrawing, they often have a sense of shame and sneaking while doing things outside of their parent’s view. This is especially true of a child who is exploring eating disorder behaviors, self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, and promiscuous sexual activity. They feel uneasy while doing these things because they believe that their parents would not approve or could not understand. The only way they can see to continue pursuing these activities, which provide short-term relief for their suffering, is to erect a wall between themselves and their parents.
Not all kids who withdraw are doing the dangerous things listed above, but it is important to know that withdrawal from the family is a requirement for most people who engage in these behaviors. This is why withdrawal should be taken very seriously.
Reconnecting after withdrawal
Emotional withdrawal erodes the trust and security that underlies a healthy relationship. Our children require a connection with us in order to feel safe and secure as independent individuals. All kids long to feel loved, cared about, respected, and valued by their parents. When a child withdraws, it is usually a sign that they need their parents to learn some new parenting skills.
If you sense that your child is withdrawing, take some time to think critically about the withdrawal patterns. Consider and write down:
- What behaviors am I noticing that suggest my child is withdrawing from me?
- How do I know that this is withdrawal and not healthy independence?
- How is my child most often relating to me, and how is it different from 6 months ago?
- Has anything changed in our family lately that may explain the withdrawal?
- Has anything changed in my child’s life lately that may explain the withdrawal?
- How am I responding to my child’s withdrawal? Am I doing things like crying, walking away, yelling, etc.?
- How does my child’s withdrawal make me feel?
- Are there times when my child is more open to me? When is my child least open to me? What patterns are there in the withdrawal behavior?
- What are we fighting about most? OR What is the “elephant in the room” that we are avoiding?
If possible, find a therapist, counselor, friend, or partner who can talk to you about your answers and help you process your feelings about your child’s withdrawal. Your feelings are valid and important. Your feelings need space and you need to heal. Look especially closely at your reactive emotions to your child’s withdrawal. It hurts. Be there for yourself and care for your deep, vulnerable, primary emotions that are being hurt by your child’s withdrawal.
Process all of this with another adult before you address it with your child, because the best way for you to help your child is to recognize that withdrawal is not a rejection of you, but an invitation to find another way of relating to your child. This situation requires you to tap into your parent side instead of your childlike, reactionary side. Your child needs you to be strong and stable for them.
Your child needs to hear things like:
- I value your opinion
- I respect you
- I am willing to talk about hard things with you
- I care about you
- I’m not going to get critical like I have been in the past
- I’m going to stay right here. I’m not going to leave you like I have been doing when things get hard
- I’m going to hang in here and fight for our relationship
- I’m going to interrupt our pattern of withdrawal from each other
It may take a while for this to work. You are trying to break a pattern to which you have both become accustomed. It’s scary to get vulnerable after withdrawal. As parents, we need to keep showing up in a soft yet strong way to continually show our child that we are fighting for our relationship with them. We have to prove – with anti-withdrawal behavior – that we are committed to them no matter what they say or do. Over time, we can replace the withdrawal cycle with supportive, loving, and nurturing parenting.
Getting help with withdrawal
It is often very difficult and sometimes impossible for a parent to reconnect with a withdrawn child without help. Don’t hesitate to seek professional support from a therapist. You should definitely seek professional help in the following cases:
- Your child refuses to engage with you and keeps you at arm’s length.
- Your learn your child was or is currently engaging in dangerous behaviors such as an eating disorder, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, self-harm, etc.
- You suspect your child was or may be engaging in dangerous behaviors such as an eating disorder, drug and alcohol use, shoplifting, self-harm, etc.
- You are unable to engage with your child without yelling, crying, shutting down and/or leaving during difficult conversations.
- After engaging with your child, you feel like you acted like a child.