Parenting Tips: How to Help a Withdrawn Child

By Greg Baer M.D.

May 13, 2024

A man called me to say that his daughter, Selene, had been somewhat withdrawn for several months. “It’s not like we never see her,” Dad said, “but she’s alone in her room more. She doesn’t play with her younger brother and sister as much as she used to. She doesn’t talk to me or her mother as much, either. It’s not severe, but it is noticeable.”

I suggested to Dad an approach that could get him started, one we all could learn from. It’s not a rigid formula, just a way to begin.

Questions NOT to Ask a Withdrawn Child

Do NOT ask vague questions like, “How are you?” or “Is anything wrong?

  1. They usually have no idea if something is wrong, and if you use the word “wrong,” they will tend to feel accused and even threatened. Then they WILL withdraw.
  2. If they know something is wrong, with rare exceptions, they don’t know how to describe it.
  3. It’s likely that they don’t quite trust you enough to share their feelings, or they would have done so already.

Helpful Questions to Help a Child Talk

You have to be more specific to open up a window for them to let anything out. Giving her your undivided attention, in a safe and relaxed environment, you might say:

  1. Is there anything about school that you don’t like?
  2. Is there anything about your life that you don’t like?
  3. Are your feelings hurt about anything people have done? 

Children find it easier to describe something being WRONG. We’re all made that way. If we walk into a perfectly decorated room but see one picture hung crookedly, our eye naturally goes to that flaw.

More Specific Questions 

If those questions are ineffective, you can get even more specific. You could say:

  1. Is there anyone at school who is unkind to you? Kids do MUCH better with True-False questions than with open-ended ones. The incidence of bullying at school is increasing rapidly, to the point that more kids have experienced it than not. WATCH HER FACE and eyes when you ask this question. Listen to her tone of voice. You’ll learn more from that than from the spoken words.
  2. Your sister can be pretty demanding of your time. Have you noticed that? Another True-False question that is easier for her.
  3. I know that your brother sometimes teases you? Does that bother you? 

More Things To Do To Help a Withdrawn Child

If you discover nothing, you might take the initiative to invite Selene:

  • To join in more family activities (don’t overdo it)
  • To accompany you more as you run errands, do things around the house, and more
  • To show you what she’s doing in school

What Asking Questions Might Help You Discover

In the process of all this gathering of information and invitations, you might discover:

  • Problems you didn’t know about
  • That she simply didn’t feel included. Some kids need to be invited.
  • That she is innately more private than you knew

The bottom line is that there is a large array of behaviors that can signal problems in children. (Watch Listen to the Whispers) We need to listen to the early whispers and investigate them. 

We must NOT interrogate our children, which will drive them away, but sincere, loving questions often can elicit descriptions of pain that need to be addressed.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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