How To Comfort A Child Who Doesn’t Want Connection

Our parenting instinct is to comfort, console, and care for our children when they are hurt, or feeling sad. But what do you do when your child pushes you away instead of letting you connect? It’s tricky, but here’s our advice…

I had just finished a stack of paperwork for my sons’ new school. Feeling relieved and a little bit cramped from signing my name a thousand times, I walked the envelopes to the end of our long driveway. (Yes, my kids’ school still uses paper and snail mail…rural living.) My son was pushing himself in the wagon toward the street. I turned just in time to see him veer toward the ledge separating the driveway from the grass. He swerved to the right, tipping himself out of the wagon and onto the hot asphalt. My instinct was to run to him. I spotted my husband at the back porch and could see him jump as fast as I did. We met our son just as he crawled out of the grass. Both of us walked toward him with arms outstretched. His dad said, “Oh no, let me see your arm.” I exclaimed, “You’re bleeding, is anything else hurt?” Our son turned away from us in anger, pushing us aside with his good arm and stomped toward the house. Still worried, we followed trying to offer the help of bandaids and ice packs. That’s when we realized, we were offering a consolation that he was not able to receive. 

Everyone processes emotions differently. For our son, when he feels any strong emotion, his brain shuts down. When he was little, he experienced various traumas including neglect. When a child’s needs are met consistently the child will be able to process a variety of emotions in a way that is healthy. When a child’s needs are not met consistently, that child will develop a way to cope with emotions that is often not healthy. Our son’s needs were not met when he was small. When he cried, someone did not come to comfort him. Consequently, when he feels pain, embarrassment, anxiety, fear, hunger or anger his brain does not expect the adults in his life to help him. It doesn’t matter if a loving adult has been in this child’s life for one year or 20 years, the child will still have the memory of not being cared for. As the adult in this child’s life, it can often be frustrating to follow our instinct to comfort or help only to be rejected. It can feel as if we will never gain this child’s trust. There is good news though. Healthy connection and healing can happen. 

The child who pushes us away physically, can still communicate. We just have to find the right language and the proper time. 

After our son was hurt, it was our instinct to communicate our care and concern for him through verbal communication and physical affection. When we realized we were communicating in the wrong language and at the wrong time, we had the opportunity to change the situation. Our son’s brain, like a simmering pot, had boiled over. He was feeling panic rather than pain. My husband and I agreed that our son was not in any danger from his injuries. He did not need immediate medical attention. Therefore it was safe for us to back off for a while until his brain had time to cool down. We physically stepped away from our son, we did not remove ourselves entirely but rather moved a little bit away. We could still see him and be available if needed but we stopped looking at him. Every few minutes, we checked in with him. We just asked simple questions, “How is your arm feeling?” Sometimes asking non-injury related questions, “Can I fix you some toast for breakfast.” If he wasn’t ready to talk, we did not push. Within an hour, he was able to have a conversation. He finally wanted a hug, that isn’t always the case but we are prepared to give a hug whenever needed! A few hours later, we helped him get into the shower with a soft cloth and some soap to wash his scrape. We waited outside the shower with a fluffy towel and some antibiotic ointment and bandaids. 

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Because we didn’t pressure our son to react to us in the way we wanted, we were able to demonstrate that we cared in a patient way. Over the years, situations like this one have happened countless times. At first we were unable to connect for hours after an emotional trigger. Now we are able to connect much more quickly. Connection is important because he will need to connect with others in a healthy way throughout life. As he grows older, the skills he is learning at home about connection, coping and emotional regulation will follow him. 

  1. Wait for the right moment – watch your child’s body language to see if they are ready to connect. 
  2. Try different forms of connection – verbal, touch, eye contact etc. but don’t push, offer the connection without expecting anything in return.
  3. Be patient and accept whatever type of connection your child offers – eye contact, smile, conversation.

Question: Have you found other ways to connect that are successful? Share them with the community in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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