What to do when your daughter clams up

There are few things more difficult for a parent than trying to connect with a girl who doesn’t want to talk. It’s like being separated by invisible glass. She’s there, and you know the thoughts and feelings are coursing through her — yet you can’t hear what’s happening inside. Getting locked out can leave us in a swirl of guilt, anger, hurt, and frustration.

At Girls Leadership, we know getting a quiet girl to open up is a tall order. We’ve spent a decade of summers living with girls like this, using every tool at our disposal to connect and open up the conversation. We know how fruitless it can feel.

So we begin with two assumptions:

  1. There are some kids who, no matter how open and welcoming and non-judgmental you are, will simply not share their feelings. It may be how they came into the world. It’s who they are and have always been.
  2. Asking a child to open up to you over and over again generally makes them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and guilty.

Here’s what you can do:

Focus on your home and yourself. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, called the family the “first school for emotional learning.” Home is where we first learn what to do with our feelings, how others will treat us when we express them, and if it’s okay or not to have them.

Try reflecting on the ways emotions are expressed by others close to your daughter, how big feelings are responded to by family members, and ways you can model safe self-expression.

For example:

  • When someone in your family is upset, do others make a beeline for fixing the problem and try to minimize the bad feelings?
  • Do they console the people they love by reassuring them that their feelings aren’t as bad as they think?

If you, or others in your family, tend to minimize, deny or challenge big feelings, it can send kids a message that difficult emotions are not welcome in the house.

If that sounds like you, consider changing your response to feelings at home – and try to ensure that your girl sees you do it. For example, when someone is sad, or angry, or embarrassed – even someone you’re speaking to on the phone — acknowledge the feelings and pause. That might sound like, “You seem really hurt. I’m sorry.” Or, “I can understand why you feel so angry. I’d feel that way, too.”

When kids are allowed to have their feelings, a lot of good things happen:

First, they have the sense that adults respect their experience. Second, kids can move through whatever is bothering them swiftly, freeing them to focus on other priorities. Third, they learn that feelings aren’t dangerous, but a healthy, important part of being a member of your family.

Even if you’re not speaking directly to your daughter, she is watching you relate to others, absorbing – albeit indirectly – your values about feelings, and the way you put them into action. And even if your daughter won’t acknowledge how she feels, you can still respond to how she seems. You might say, “You look like you feel a little sad today. I’m sorry.”

Because girls grow up in a culture that rewards them for pleasing others, they may develop negative beliefs about “bad” emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration. It’s key to convey to girls that it’s okay to feel however they want to feel (it’s just not okay to do whatever they want to do). It can also help to let girls know that emotions are normal and not permanent. Feelings don’t define us: they are fluid and ever-changing, and just because we feel one way now does not mean we’ll feel that way tomorrow.

Get even more strategies to use with your daughter by watching the video. Be sure to check out the classic parenting text, How to Talk So Kids Can Listen and Listen So Kids Can Talk.

Read more from Girls Leadership:

by Rachel Simmons   on Parenting

  1. Laura

    Short and simple advice.Thank you! I shared with a FB group I am in.

  2. Brooke

    This was great! Informative, brief and excellent marketing….

  3. Dee Ann

    I’ve been searching your website for this topic and was so thankful to find it in my inbox this morning! Our family is going through a big change right now, not necessarily all bad, but definitely big, and my 13-year old refuses to talk about it. It hasn’t been easy to be patient and let her manage her feelings on her own schedule. And it’s been surprising how uncomfortable it makes many adult family members, who want to share their feelings with her. Thank you giving some perspective.

    • Dorothy Ponton, Community Engagement Manager

      So glad this was helpful for you! We’re hearing that it isn’t a matter of IF your tween/ teen clams up… but a matter of WHEN. Hope you get all the support you need through your big change.


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