How to Cope With an Emotionally Distant Child

Posted April 1, 2016 by

How to Cope With an Emotionally Distant Child

Do you ever wonder what happened to your sweet, affectionate, “glad to be part of this family” younger child? Did your child enter adolescence with a sudden cloud of distance, brooding, sullen behavior, and a desperate need to be as far away from your family as possible?

Though it’s one of the more heartbreaking aspects of parenting, raising a child means living through the loss of personal involvement and influence we may have enjoyed in their younger years.

The teen years are marked by explorations of autonomy, independence, and identity outside the family system: Kids might want to spend more time in their rooms. They’re going to think their friends understand them a lot more than their parents do. They’re going to push parents away. It can feel pretty horrible.

It’s important to realize that this change is not personal or unique to your child—this is the way your adolescent is learning how to be an adult. Though it can be a painful part of parenting, your child’s individuation is a good and healthy thing.

As uncomfortable as it might be as a parent, your child’s distance from you is actually right on track: the teen years mark their transition into the adult world. Hopefully, they’ll take the skills you’ve helped them to learn into their lives as young adults.

Remember though – just because your child is stepping away from the relationship he had with you when he was younger doesn’t mean he’s allowed to be disrespectful, nor break the rules of the household. Having healthy boundaries means allowing, even encouraging, independence while holding your child to the rules and expectations of your home.

When living with the developmental needs of a teenager gets to you, remind yourself that your child’s needs for time with her friends, and time alone, are developmentally appropriate. Stay firm and clear in your expectations and boundaries, while doing your best to support her development as an individual. And be sure to take care of yourself – there is a very real grief in leaving their younger childhood behind.

For more help on this subject, check out James Lehman’s article series on Sudden Changes In Children. He does a great job explaining individuation and gives some helpful tools while also discussing sudden behavior changes that might point to another serious issue.

This is not an easy part of parenting, for sure. But giving our kids space to find out who they are, within a safe and respectful environment, helps them become healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Wishing you the best this week.


Darlene, Empowering Parents Coach


Darlene Beaulieu is a parent to two teenage daughters, ages 13 and 16. She has been an Empowering Parents Coach since 2009 and has helped thousands of families in that time. She earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling and has worked in school and community settings helping children and families with academic, social, and behavioral issues.

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  1. A Disconnect from Empathy Report

    […] care about you and you care about them, you don’t want to fill up the conversation with anything negative. You want to tell them good things about yourself and your life so that they don’t spend their […]

  2. Aztekgoddezz Report

    My 13 yr old daughter has been going through her pre-teen/teen changes and as a single mother it’s overwhelming. She had an issue with bullying at school two years ago and I contacted the school and got her help for her mental issues. But lately, she makes me feel like I’m her enemy and we are at war. She has lost interest in everything besides being on the phone with her bff’s and rarely comes out of her room. If I ask her to do anything (i.e clean her room, wash dishes, etc.) it’s like if I’m asking her for a lung or a liver and she complains and complains! I feel like the whole bullying issue is a factor in this and don’t know how to deal with this in a supportive and understanding way. My oldest son is 19 and didn’t have any issues when he was going through his teen years that come close to hers. Help!

    • dbeaulieu Report


      I am so sorry it has been so
      challenging with your daughter lately. You are not alone in your experience. We
      hear from parents everyday who are seeing the same types of behaviors. It is
      normal for a child your daughter’s age to start to pull away and spend more of
      their time with their peers because that is who they relate to most right now.
      Spending time in her room on her phone is how kids are connected to their
      friends nowadays. It is also normal for her to protest doing something she does
      not want to do, like the dishes or cleaning her room. James Lehman talks more
      about the changes your child is going through at this age in his article If you feel that your
      daughter’s behavior is due to something more, like the bullying she has
      experienced, I would encourage you to seek local supports to help her work
      through it. You can contact the 211
      Helpline, a national health and human services referral service, if you need
      help finding services in your area.  You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a
      day by calling 1-800-273-6222. You can also find them online at I hope
      this helps to answer your questions. Thank you for writing in. Take care.

  3. helpusplease Report

    my almost 15 year old son is acting out at school. He was just suspended for using a Vape in class. I’m hearing rumors that he is hanging out with kids that use drugs and he’s telling lies to his friends. He is getting a bad reputation at school. His sister is one year older and hears all the gossip and told us because she is concerned. We have drug tested him but has always come back negative. We have tried everything with him. Taken the phone away, grounded him. Not allowed him to go to a school dance. etc… He says he doesn’t want to live with us anymore and wants to live with his aunt. My husband gets angry and tells him to leave then. But then I tell my husband that is not the answer. We are VERY frustrated. Any suggestions?

    • dbeaulieu Report


      It is understandable you and
      your husband are frustrated by your son’s behavior. You want the best for him
      and his recent choices are getting in the way of him being successful at
      school. As Carol Banks discusses in her article, it is best to focus on helping
      your son to solve his problems more effectively by coaching him on replacement
      behaviors and leaving the discipline up to the school officials. Acting out
      behaviors that take place at school should be disciplined at school. Having
      consequences at home as well is not going to help your son to develop the
      skills to behave differently. Because of the rumors that are going around it is
      good to stay aware and involved, but given the fact that he has had clean drug
      tests it sounds like it is just rumors at this point and not a behavior that
      warrants consequences at this time. I know is it is difficult to hear your son
      say he does not want to live with you anymore, but it is probably in response
      to him being in trouble or not getting his way and it is not an uncommon for
      kids to say things like that. The best way to handle that is to walk away and
      let the situation calm down. Thank you for writing in. Take care.

  4. kattsbr12 Report

    my daughter married gabe who has 2 children gabe jr 13 and chloe 11,  gabie/chole  live with mom.  she remarried has 2 small kids  5 and 3.  She has g/c do most of housework and watch smaller kids. not allowed to do anything cause she doesnt want to be bothered.  My daughter has taken over afterschool sports/activities.  her and hubby both work, kids come every other week for weekend visits. i love the both and treat them as my own. but lately gabe jr has been having issues at school, cut class, inapproiate web sites, fighting, and now paying other kids $50- $100 to be his friend.  His mom says it her husbands tax refund that was left on dresser.  my daughter is not sure what to do. please can i have some advise.

  5. JustineIsBitchn Report

    I’m so glad this post exists! I’ve never heard anyone touch on how difficult it can be to accept the “new” version of your child during the preteen-teen years. I’ve been more open to the change with my almost twelve year old daughter, but some times I do miss her younger self. [sigh] 
    Growing up is guaranteed with kids, but that doesn’t make it easier on us parental units.

  6. Michelle Report

    Boy, I needed that today!  I have primary care of my 13-year-old grand-daughter.  Admittedly, the family situation hasn’t been a positive one and she has come into the realization of that.  Adding the teenage changes is making those realizations even more obvious.  Today, she texted that she doesn’t like anyone in the family and doesn’t really want to spend time with anyone in the family.  There are legitimate reasons for this in many aspects, but, at the same time, it is heart breaking to realize that family has made her unhappy and it is a grieving process to lose that connection with the little girl I used to spend hours with.  Glad I was able to vent and realize that I am not alone in these feelings.

  7. spc0720 Report

    Our daughter, who just turned 12, still likes to be around us and occasionally goes upstairs to her room. I can tell her friends are becoming more important to her then we are. It is hard to see the small changes happening but I know this is perfectly normal. Sometimes it’s hard to have a conversation cause she’s just not in the mood.It does hurt my feelings but I know it’s part of growing up.  Other times, she loves sharing and talking about all sorts of things and I love those times. I treasure them cause I know when she gets a little older, these times will be fewer. Sigh….oh the perils of growing up. lol. Wish they could stay young forever. Ages six thru ten where the BEST!!

  8. HeidiPhinneyDorman Report

    My son just started spending more and more of his time at home in his room. This is somewhat frustrating to me because every time I want to ask him a question or just talk, he won’t come out. I figured out last night if I go into his room and sit on the floor, he eventually will turn off the computer or put it aside long enough to hear what I have to say. I restarted the “family time” again: no in his room on the computer after 8 p.m. He usually wants to play on the Wii with me or Sorry!.

    • Sonia Report

      HeidiPhinneyDorman Hi Heidi, I can relate with your situation. My son (and daughter) also like to spend too much time playing games on the cell phone. When I finally get them to turn off their phones after a lot of complaints, they want to talk and talk and talk to me, and sometimes have a difficult time taking turns talking or listening to another person is saying. I mean when they don’t spend so much time playing on the phone, they can communicate better and they’re not so clingy with wanting talking so much with me. So I’m trying to monitor their phone usage. It’s difficult, but I’ve started “phone-break” call-outs of about two-hours so they can do something else with their brains that they may want to do.

  9. Julia E Report

    Our 19-year-old daughter took 2 classes at a local community college and did not do well.  She told us she was not yet ready to waste any more of our money by going to college, and she found a waitressing job.   At about this same time, she announced she was moving out of our house and into an apartment near the campus of a local college.  She said she needed to get out from under our constant scrutiny so that she could find out who she was and what she wanted to do with her life.  She promised us she would pay for her own rent ($540 a month) and her cell phone ($55 a month) and her car note ($250).  She did, however, need someone to sign the apartment lease as guarantor.  Since the lease term was for only 4 months, I signed.  Unfortunately for me, she was fired from her waitressing job, and she is having difficulty finding another job.  She was very late in paying her 2nd month’s rent, and the apartment manager attached late fees to her bill.  She was unable to pay her 3rd month’s rent.  As guarantor, I do not want to be responsible for the additional fees!  Should I pay her rent for the remainder of her lease term?  I do not know what to do.  A little background:  We adopted her from a foreign country when she was 1 year old. Things went great during her early childhood, but she seemed to become depressed when she was 12 (when she started her menstrual period).  Her school grades have never been good, and we are aware that her IQ is “average.”  She has shown signs of compulsive lying and dishonest behavior in general.  She seems depressed; she has no interest in anything.  A social worker pointed out that a huge part of the problem is the relationship that exists between her and her adoptive father (my husband).  This social worker tried to convince my husband that he needed to be aware of the significance of treating her more kindly.  He thinks it’s psycho-babble and says that our daughter needs a good kick in the rear.  Sometimes I agree that her behavior is “bad.”  Other times I think he is the cause of it.  I am out of my mind with worry and depression, and we don’t have enough money to keep going to see therapists and social workers.

    • dbeaulieu Report

      Julia E 

      I can understand your concern
      about your daughter’s financial predicament because as a guarantor, you are
      potentially responsible for her financial decisions as well. While I cannot
      tell you whether you should or should not pay her rent for the remainder of the
      lease, that is only a decision you can make. I would suggest
      looking into what you are going to be legally responsible for when she does not
      pay her rent and how her not paying could potentially effect you. If you need
      help with legal questions, you can contact the 211 Helpline in your area by
      dialing 211 or visiting their website at
      Regardless of who or what might have caused your daughter’s behavior, she is an
      adult now, and as an adult is responsible for her choices and behavior. I can
      hear the situation is causing you worry and that is understandable. I would
      encourage you to focus on self care and doing things that relieves stress. That
      could be doing things that you enjoy, like taking walks or visiting with
      friends, or something more formal like a parent support group or counseling. I
      know this is not easy to be going through. Please check back in and let us know
      how things are going. Take care.

    • Sonia Report

      Julia E Hi Julia, though I am no expert I thought of this: Ask her what does she want? You offer her what you can give her, what you can guarantee you can give her. For example, she may want her own apartment, but you cannot pay or do not want to pay for her apartment. Your funds may be limited, and whatever extra funds you have, you may want to use for some other needs you may have. She may want encouragement. You would be willing to give her encouragement. Sometimes it may be difficult to give her encouragement because you may see difficulties, well mention the difficulties you think she ought to be aware of without necessarily discouraging her from following upon the path she wants to follow. Help her mentally prepare for those difficulties she may face.  For example, for the apartment, she should have about three months rent saved up before getting an apartment. Or sometimes you may want to encourage her, but someone else in your world is saying something in the opposite and interfere with your intention to encourage her. So ask her to let you know if she feels you’re not encouraging her or how it could be better. If your husband is not willing to encourage her, then that’s too bad, it’s difficult to have one member of the family one way, and another member of the family a different way. Let her know you love her and that you want to help her in how you can help her. Trying to communicate little by little is okay, no big results or changes to be expected, as long as you keep aiming to communicate may end up bringing about nice changes. Once I started looking up videos on Youtube about a difficulty I was having. I went from one video to the next, my search topic changed a little bit and other related videos would come up. I remember my initial topic was “How to discipline a toddler.” I searched this up because I had gone to a parent meeting where they were talking about discipline, and setting limits and structure at home. So I was wondering more about how to deal with a toddler who’s attention is being called but is not showing a change in behavior. I got to watch a couple of videos that helped me realize how negative means such as violence, aggression, intimidation, or simple expectation were not effective in getting others to act as desired or expected. Sometimes it is necessary to ask questions such as What do you need to do what you need to do?, lower or change expectations without necessarily hurting the child…Maybe instead of taking two classes at the college she could take one. If one class is too difficult, maybe she could seek tutoring or choose a lower level to get started. Maybe instead of aiming for a four year program, she could aim for a two year, one year, or six month program. I think in society young people are sometimes expected to be overly high achievers. However, in reality, we need all kinds of people for a functional society. Also, sometimes people start in one area, go on to another area, then another, then there’s a turn, they might have downs, ups, or explosions such as Mark Zuckerberg. But in my opinion, young people should be allowed to develop in areas of their interest. If they hit the jackpot, great. If they can barely support themselves, well at least they’re supporting themselves. The only times I don’t support people doing what they want is when they want to commit crimes, hurt others, or become homeless. If they can be part of society somehow, that’s great for them and for society. If they could do better by doing things a little different, then I would let them get started in what they want, then point out one or two things which might make it easier or better for them…Well I hope better times for you, your daughter, and your whole family!

    • SusanLMFT Report

      When you co-sign on anything for anyone, you should go into it prepared to be responsible for the bill because if that person doesn’t pay its on you. If you know that you can’t afford to pay someone else’s rent or car payment you should never co-sign. The only way I would ever co-sign is if I knew the person had demonstrated long term responsibility and ability to hold a job and history of making payments. You had a daughter you already knew had behavior problems and never demonstrated an ability to live on her own or pay her own bills, and how long did she have her job when she moved on her own? Never allow someone to manipulate or guilt trip you into co-signing on anything, especially if you know you would not be able to afford to pay the bill should that person lose their job. Unfortunately you have two choices, pay the bills or ruin your credit. Unless you can find someone else to move into her apartment and pay the rent for her. Ask your daughter to look for a roommate and tell her she needs to find another job immediately even if it’s Taco Bell.



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