When Kids Hide Their Feelings and Reject Our Comfort

We’re trying to be there for our kids, let them know we care, and give them positive, healthy messages about their feelings. What could possibly go wrong? In this episode, Janet responds to a parent who worries that when she tries to comfort her upset 3-year-old daughter, the child seems ashamed about her feelings, even angry, and yells at the parent to go away. The parent asks, “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?”


Transcript of “When Kids Hide Their Feelings and Reject Our Comfort”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about an issue that many of you have asked about over the years. It’s the natural concern that we have when our child seems to be pushing us away when they’re upset or they seem uncomfortable expressing their feelings, even when we make sure to let them know we’re very, very open to that. Maybe we’ve read or heard or listened to podcasts like mine, talking about how important it is for children to feel safe to share all their feelings with us. That we want to cultivate an environment for them where all feelings are allowed—not all behaviors, but all feelings—and how this is a path to their resiliency and emotional fluency and emotional health.

So it’s obviously worrisome when our child doesn’t seem to be following that pattern, that they’re rejecting us when we try to comfort them, they’re trying to hide their feelings. Maybe they’re saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” or running away from us. What does this mean? How can we unpack this and what can we do to make it better? That’s what I’m going to be talking about today.

This time I’ll start with a note that I received from a parent. Some of the specifics in this note you probably won’t relate to, but the dynamic between this parent and her daughter is a common one. This was a message I received on Instagram:

Hi, Janet-

My husband and I are separating. We still co-habit, but I go away when it’s his turn to have them 50% of the time. I’ve noticed when I come back, my three-year-old seems very mad at me. I understand this feeling, but what worries me is the way it plays out.

It seems when she is upset or angry, she is afraid or ashamed of her emotions. She runs and hides, refuses any comfort, tells me to go away and shouts, “Mummy, I want Daddy back!” Today she shut herself in the bathroom and told me to go away if I opened the door. I sat outside, acknowledged her feelings, and let her know I was there and ready to help her when she needs me. The more I spoke, the more angry she was. She eventually just snapped out of it after 20 minutes. She denied hunger and had had a nap, so I don’t think she was tired.

Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?

Okay, so one thing I appreciate is that this parent really pegs the issue in her last sentence here, that’s a question: “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?”

There aren’t that many issues in parenting that we can say, It always means this across the board, and You should do this or that. Because every child is a unique individual, every parent is an individual, our dynamic with each child is unique. That’s why I’m not a fan of categorizing children. I know it’s very popular these days to say that this is this type of child or that type of child. Dr. Mona Delahooke—who I miss so much in these spaces. She had a severe brain injury and she’s still recovering and healing, but she will be back. She agrees with me on this. I appreciate that so much because she is an expert in children that are neurodivergent. And she says as well, let’s approach each child as an individual. Yes, there are some issues children have that are measurably different, but mostly, everybody is a range of things, right? And we can miss so much when we try to adhere to advice that categorizes.

That said, I love that we can say across the board that when children are behaving in ways that are concerning, as in this case, any kind of what we might call “misbehavior,” there’s one thing we can say for sure, and that is that our child is uncomfortable. They’re uncomfortable in some way. It can be very minor discomfort, that, Hmm, they’re not quite giving me a clear answer on this. My parent seems a little uncomfortable, they’re unsure of themselves. So that very minor type of discomfort, ranging all the way to intense fear, trauma, stress, that kind of discomfort.

So when we want to understand and know how to help a child and how to make a difference, like this parent wants to make, what are they uncomfortable about? And why? In this case, she’s uncomfortable expressing her feelings with her parent. And maybe with both of her parents, I don’t know that, but we know she’s uncomfortable expressing it with this parent. And it doesn’t necessarily mean something that the parent did, it could mean the way other people besides this parent have responded to her. But something has made her uncomfortable with being in these emotional states.

Now I’m going to talk about some of the things that it could be, and then I’ll share what I think might be going on in this case with this child, because there’s some clues in this message. But let’s talk about generally what’s going on when children are uncomfortable around their emotions and around us witnessing their emotions.

First, some children are more introverted and more likely to internalize feelings. So, that tendency is there.

Two is the very obvious and severe ways that we make children uncomfortable around their feelings: punishing, shaming children for their feelings, reacting violently or in scary, threatening ways to our child. That makes sense to us, right? When children experience those responses, they’re going to learn very early on that they’re not safe to share their feelings. They need to hide them or stuff them. So I absolutely don’t believe that’s what’s going on in this message, but that’s one of the most obvious ways.

Similarly, if we’re judging, mocking, laughing at our children. There’s been trends that have come and gone where people are sharing that on social media, unfortunately. And no, the child doesn’t know the parent’s sharing it on social media and laughing at them, but they know the parent’s taking a video of them. So that’s obviously not going to encourage them to be open about their feelings.

Then it can be when we’re perceiving these as problematic situations that children need us to address and help them through. And this is where I’m not a fan of the advice to get children to take deep breaths and using calm down jars or other methods to try to help children to calm down. By doing that actively, with all this power that we have as parents—remember, there’s a power differential here. We are so powerful in the way that we respond to our child. In their eyes, we are god-like, especially in the early years. If we’re addressing, with the best of intentions, our child’s feelings with this perception that this is something we need to help them get through and do something about, that can create fear in them in regard to feelings they have that are already uncomfortable. So they’re having the uncomfortable feeling and now my parent’s reacting as if this isn’t a safe place for me to be in myself, that I need to feel better. Well, that can make me feel scared or just uncomfortable with the idea that I’m feeling this. My parent is teaching me that it needs to go away. It’s a problem and I need to do something about it to make it better.

So yes, while it can help children to have a quiet, call it a calm-down place or whatever, but a quiet, unthreatening place to be. Let’s say we’re in a group situation, there’s a calm-down area for a child. We want to approach that not as we’re secluding that child or we’re banishing that child or forcing them to be alone or that now you go in there and you’ve got to feel better. We don’t want to approach it that way, as a problem, but as just a safe place that we trust you to be in while the feelings run their course. In other words, we want this to be a choice that’s helpful to our child, but doesn’t give the message that there’s something wrong here that we need to make better.

Another one, I guess this is number four, when children get into the habit of pacifiers or even thumb-sucking as a comfort tool that they go to as soon as they’re upset. Now, a child’s need to suck can help them to center themselves as babies and toddlers. Thumb-sucking especially is, I believe, a fine and healthy choice. But as children are passing age two or three, we just want to take notice of how they’re using those tools. And I wouldn’t try to change everything overnight or rip those away from them at a certain age. Maybe dentists are going to tell you to do that, but I’m not. When children are used to something, we want them to actually be ready to let go of that, and then we can work together with them to change that.

But in the interim, what I recommend—and actually I’ve never had a chance to say this on a podcast before—is to notice when your child is going there, to that thumb or wants that pacifier, and giving it a moment. Where we, not in a worrisome way, but we just gently reflect: “You’re wanting to suck your thumb right now,” or “You’re wanting your pacifier right now because you’re sad, it seems like.” Whatever we know happened: “This happened and you seem sad or you seem mad about it. You can always tell me those things. I want to know.” So we’re just opening that door. We’re not trying to force or push that our child has to share with us. Because that’s going to do the opposite, right? That’s going to make our child feel pressured and even more uncomfortable. But just opening that up, I see you and I’m here and I’m not going to judge you or make a big deal out of it. I mean, that part we wouldn’t say, but just show. You can always share with me. I see how you’re using that right now. So just that very light, opening the door for them to share a little bit or share a little bit more. But not stressing ourselves out about it, because that’s the other thing, with all our power, that makes children uncomfortable.

That’s why co-regulation, when we hear that term, it really describes this beautifully. Because co-regulation is both of us together. That means I’m not calming you down, I’m calming myself down so that you can calm down, in your time. Oftentimes it helps in these situations for us to actually take the focus off our child and put it on ourselves. Telling ourselves, I’m safe. I can be calm. This will pass. This is actually the best thing my child could be doing right now, expressing what they’re feeling.

Number five, we can make children feel uncomfortable or pressured when we make An Event out of any hurt or other unhappy feeling. So this is related to the problematic situation, right? But in this situation, maybe it’s not about us actively saying, “deep breaths, deep breaths,” but we’re putting a focus on the situation. And I know this is an impression I think maybe I give sometimes about feelings. Because I often get asked, or parents often comment, that they’re going through a hard time with their child and they have other children and they just can’t work their child through all these big meltdowns that they’re having. And how do they manage? Because it’s just too much.

I think this idea that every feeling our child has is a big event may be why some in the press are doing these articles that are mocking gentle parenting or suggesting that it’s damaging. Now, I still don’t know what “gentle parenting” means because nobody seems to define it. I do know that bashing it seems to be sort of clickbait lately, people love to pile on in comments on articles that are about all the awful things that parents are doing. I don’t think that helps anyone. But I do think that at least part of the reason for that is this misunderstanding that parenting advisors like me think that fostering emotional health means we’re giving this big, drawn-out attention to every feeling a child has, indulging them in that way, putting everything aside while we wait this out. And parents complain, understandably, that this is way too much work on top of everything else that they have to do.

And I couldn’t agree more! Doing work around children’s emotions is not a job I recommend taking on because it’s not possible for us. It’s impossible. And it doesn’t help our children, because making a big event out of an every-day, perhaps multiple-times-a-day, life experience that children have—younger children especially—that’s just going to wear us out. We’re not going to survive that. What I recommend is a letting go. That’s why I say letting feelings be. Let go, let feelings be. Focus on acceptance, anchoring and calming ourselves while the rough waves pass us by. We’re not trying to do anything with them or about them. We’re not trying to stop them. We know they need to flow, so we’re just going to accept them and let them be.

Being an anchor doesn’t mean we have to stand there watching either. It’s an attitude, it’s a conviction in this idea of acceptance. And I can accept from across the room, I can accept if I have to leave the room, I can accept if I need to help carry you into the car or out of the car while you’re having a hard time. Acceptance is an attitude, it doesn’t take work. It does take practicing a perspective on feelings that I’ve shared about umpteen times in this podcast, but I know it’s never enough, because it’s never enough for me to not forget: that feelings are safe, feelings are normal, feelings are okay. When we do make an event, then children can feel everything ranging from pressured to embarrassed. It’s too much focus on them in a vulnerable time, and that can cause them to want to push us away, hide.

That can happen when a child falls down or bumps themself and a parent gets really upset about that or so sympathetic, and we’re running towards our child as if it’s an emergency. That’s an impulse a lot of us have, and it’s a good one to try to get perspective on. Because our tone is always going to set the tone. And children don’t want a big fuss made over them, especially when they’re upset. A good default is to observe, listen, receive your child’s energy first, and maybe all the way through if they’re having a feeling, instead of trying to talk or do something about it. So even if our child falls from across the room, we look first. Maybe we start to approach, but slowly, not running over. “You fell.” And then we see that our child is crying, or maybe they’re not crying, but let’s say they’re crying first. “Oh no, did that hurt? Ouch. You didn’t like that.” With a very small child, we might just go over with them what happened, but in this very reflective way. We’re not trying to talk about it, we’re not trying to say words. We’re just noticing: “I think you tripped on this, right? On this toy. Yeah, ouch.” And then we let it go. And if we’re reading that our child seems to want to hug, then we hug. Mostly we’re just receiving, allowing, and accepting.

Of course, if there’s something we could do physically to help our child feel better, we will. Ideally not in panic mode, making a big event out of it. Because then children feel that too, that it’s too much. It’s too uncomfortable, it’s too much pressure, it’s too embarrassing. They’re the center of attention. And sometimes they can sort of feel like it’s their role to help us feel better, because they sense that we’re feeling as uncomfortable as they are. And it’s hard not to as parents, because we do love our kids and we never want to see them hurt or sad or anything besides happy. But I guess that’s where being brave for our child really can be a positive thing. And just being receivers.

Getting back to this parent’s note, she knows, as she says, that these feelings her child has make a lot of sense. She says, “When I come back, my three-year-old seems very mad at me. I understand this feeling, but what worries me is the way it plays out.” So this parent is sharing, and this is why she shared the note with me, that she’s worried. One thing I can know is that her child is feeling the parent’s worry in these moments. And even that can add to a child’s discomfort and make it harder for them to want to share. Maybe one or two times we noticed they didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so now we’re worried. And our child is feeling that. They just want to have their feeling. They don’t consciously think like this, but Just let me have my feeling! I think we can all relate to that. Sometimes when a partner or a friend or a relative or someone is trying to make us feel better and, Just let me have my feeling! If you’re worried about me, now I have to worry about you and I can’t just feel how I feel myself. So that’s something to look at, possibly.

Then this parent says, “It seems when she is upset or angry, she is afraid or ashamed of her emotions.” Again, this parent, very perceptive, insightful. She’s sensing her child is afraid or ashamed about her emotions. That’s the discomfort that her child feels. Now, why would she be afraid? Maybe because her parent is worried. Maybe because she feels a little bit too much attention around this and that’s why she’s ashamed. Maybe she’s ashamed because she feels the parent is too concerned about this, putting too much attention on it. I’m just throwing these things out here, I obviously don’t know for sure. And I don’t blame this parent for anything she’s feeling. She’s going through it, it’s a tough situation all around.

The parent says, “She runs and hides, refuses any comfort, tells me to go away and shouts, ‘Mummy, I want Daddy back!'” The running and hiding—yes, it could be that it’s too hard to try to contain that parent’s feelings while I have mine, as a child. So I need to just get some privacy with this.

“Refuses any comfort.” I wonder if the dear mother, out of her worry, is wanting to comfort her child, but in a way might be wanting to comfort herself that this is going to be okay. I don’t know that, but I mean, I can feel that as a parent. I can feel, I want you to feel better so I can feel better. That’s often where our wish to actively comfort comes from. And I don’t know what this comfort looks like when she says her daughter refuses it. Comfort in this case will come when the parent lets go a little bit more, lets go of worrying. Because, as she says, she understands the feeling. And the feeling makes sense to me. So it’s safe for her child to have this feeling all the way through, and that’s what she needs to do to get to the other side of it.

She says that her daughter tells her to go away and shouts, “Mummy, I want Daddy back!” That is her expressing her feeling. She’s expressing her anger and her upset feeling there and her sadness, maybe. I want Daddy back! I have to make this transition. Go away! I’m not ready to transition from Daddy to you yet. I need to have this passage of feelings first. So let me have them. Don’t get in my way. Even though the parent is trying so hard to do the right thing, right?

She says, “Today she shut herself in the bathroom and told me to go away if I opened the door. I sat outside, acknowledged her feelings, and let her know I was there and ready to help her when she needs me. The more I spoke, the more angry she was.” Yes. So when our acknowledging and our words make our child angrier or more upset, it’s often because, and I think that’s true in this case, maybe our intention in saying these words, maybe it’s coming out of our worry. Our wanting to work her through this, that this is a problem, that we’ve got to say these things and let her know that we’re there. When our child just needs to not be thinking about us and just to be in herself and her feelings.

And then of course, you’ve got to love this: “She eventually just snapped out of it after 20 minutes.” Snapped out of it. That’s what children do, especially at this age. They do snap out of it, when they’re ready to.

So, in answer to this question, “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable when feeling sad or angry?” Yes. I would calm myself. Not try to talk, not try to comfort. Know that your child feels your presence, they feel your worry or they feel your acceptance. If we can let go of worry and let ourselves drop into acceptance, let the feelings be, just keeping the focus on ourselves, then our child will feel that safe space to express her feelings. And when we’ve done this a few times around all her feelings, especially these ones that are so triggering for us, right? Because I’m sure this parent has her own feelings she’s processing and navigating about this situation. It’s so hard. But trying to keep that separate and just focus on herself, and let her child have it her way, the way that she does it. Which may be shutting herself away for a while, that’s okay. Trust that it’s a process.

And if we can show, not tell her, that we’re there for her and ready to help when she needs us. Even that—obviously this parent doesn’t mean it that way, but it can be pressurizing. Alright, I’m waiting. Let me know if you need me. It feels, as the child, like we’re getting rushed, like we’re supposed to feel better because our mom is doing all this stuff to try to help us feel better, saying the right things, doing the right things. We just want to feel how we feel. Just leave me alone! It can make sense when we put ourselves in our child’s shoes. And if we can trust more and accept more, she will feel safer to have them in our presence. But I wouldn’t have that be your goal. I would just have your goal be to let her do her thing the way that she does it, and trust that she’s going to come out the other side and feel better, probably snap out of it the way children do.

And that’s our job, we’ve done it. Accepting the feelings and also accepting the way our child is expressing them. Even if it doesn’t look the way that we imagine or the way it is in the movies or the way that looks like this wonderful parent and we have this moment together where we hug. That’s just not the vibe of these feelings right now. Giving into that and just letting go of it is the way.

Just a couple details about separations. Understanding more, again, how much sense these feelings make. This is a big transition for this child, or any child, to let go of one parent and be with another. Even if they’re staying in the same house and the parents are moving back and forth, or if they’re the ones that are moving from house to house. All transitions tend to be challenging for children, just getting up and going from here to there. And now here’s one that’s especially challenging, separating from one attachment figure and embracing another.

This can be easier for children when they feel like their attachment figures are aligned, not separate. But that’s not always the way our lives as parents work out, right? So no guilt there. But it’s something to realize, just to help us even more to normalize what she’s going through. Realizing that this is a natural time for her to express the strongest feelings, and the best thing she can do is to vent them out. And it can help kids if we’re able to give our partner who we’re separated from or divorced from grace, so children can still experience as much as possible a harmonious unit between parents. But that’s not always possible, I know.

Here’s some general suggestions for any parent going through something like this, where their child isn’t allowing them to comfort them or showing them their feelings the way the parent wishes them to. Allow. Allow children to express their feelings in their own immature way. Yelling at us may be a part of that. It’s not personal. Allow children to find their way to calm in their own way and time. So we’re not trying to dictate that for them or affect it in any way. That can be a tough one for us, right? And lastly, allow children to hide or not talk about it or stuff it with their thumb or their pacifier, after we’ve opened up that door for them to share with us very briefly. Don’t impose any pressure at all on what they’re doing, that they have to do it differently for us because we want them to. This is easier when we let go of feelings as some kind of agenda for us, and we’re just available. Within reason, I mean, we’re not going to let ourselves be screamed at in the face or pummeled or otherwise abused. We’re just being available, trusting. We’re calming ourselves, and that is the best way to comfort them or co-regulate, if we want to call it that. Calming ourselves, letting the feelings be. So simple, yet so not easy.

I share a whole section on meltdowns and tantrums and other feelings that children have, whining, and how we can handle that, how we can approach it, how to feel about it, in my No Bad Kids Master Course. You can check it out at nobadkidscourse.com.

Thank you so much for listening. I hope some of this helps. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thanks for sharing this insightful article from Janet Lansbury’s blog. It’s important for parents and caregivers to understand that children may sometimes hide their feelings or reject comfort, and this behavior doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of trust or connection. The article provides valuable insights into how to support children in expressing their emotions and offering comfort in a respectful and understanding manner.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I noticed recently that my daughter’s meltdowns resolve better when I stay calm and let her be. The only concern I have is when she starts hitting, kicking, shouting and damaging doors, walls, furniture in those moments. I don’t want to accept this behaviour. I say it’s okay to feel upset, angry, sad but we do not hit, kick, break things. But during a meltdown she forgets about those boundaries and there is no way out. What can I do?

  3. Thank you for this perfectly timed article: our 7-year old daughter is having big emotions lately and we’ve been accepting and waiting but no much “letting go”. We will definitely put a focus on this. However, how can we manage if we’re under time pressure (leaving for school, having to run some errands before an appointment)?

  4. Thank you for these insights. Do you have any suggestions or previous posts about a child who disengages? After a challenging time or to prepare her for something coming up, I make a bid to talk to my almost 4-yr old, and she gives no appearance of listening and makes a totally unrelated comment. I try to choose a later time, in a quiet moment, following a tantrum or if I’m trying to repair, and she responds inappropriately. It doesn’t seem like anything lands, and I find it very frustrating. There is no magic moment of understanding between us. I know you don’t like the comment, but I thought this behaviour was going to come up in teenagehood, but it seems so young!
    Thank you for all your work.

    1. Thank you, Robyn! Can you share what these conversations sound like? What kinds of things are you saying? That might help me understand why she is getting uncomfortable.

      1. Thanks so much for responding.

        Here are some examples:
        -after seeing some behaviour, I might try to understand what is causing it: ‘Hey, you pushed your little sister this morning. I know that it’s her birthday coming up, are you feeling like she’s getting a lot of attention? Is that making you feel jealous?’ She might comment about how a toy is broken in the room.

        -after I have gotten mad about something and I want to try to repair. I might say ‘I’m sorry for how I got mad. That’s not ok for me to yell like that…’ and maybe I go on too long or something and she cuts me off to comment on a bird that’s out the window.

        -after a tantrum (and cool down period) we try to ask what it was about, why she might have felt like yelling/hitting.
        My husband says she stonewalls.

        I don’t ever get a direct answer from her, but sometimes if I guess a bit, and try to make some suggestions, if I land on what it is, she goes quiet and I know that I found what it was.
        Or lately she might say things, I expect, just to placate me. For example, bedtimes have been incredibly challenging, so one day I asked what she needs at bedtime and how we can work together so bedtime can be more peaceful. She answered that ‘the problem is that I need to go on the swing before bedtime.’ And the next day ‘the problem is that I want you to put me to bed every time’ and then the next night was that she needed nana to put her to bed every time.

        I feel that I’m trying to address an issue with her, but she is evasive and aloof and it feels like I’m talking to the wall.

        Am I overestimating that she will be able to tell me how she’s feeling?
        Its hard to guess what is going on with behaviour, if it’s even something specific or just a stormy time right now.
        It seems she doesn’t yet have the vocabulary, so I try to make suggestions, but this can feel like I am putting words in her mouth.

        I’m probably talking too much and being too direct and maybe this pressurizes her, as you say.
        She is a thinker, she notices everything around her and is very conscientious. I guess I know that the words are registering somewhere but in the meantime it’s frustrating.
        Your words are so comforting to read, and I thank you for your valuable time in reading mine.

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