Updated: Mar 27, 2020
How do I tell my child - who is in a shut down state - that I love them?
The obvious answer is that you just tell them. Honestly, I'd rather you just put it out there than not. If your anxiety about saying it "the right way" is stopping you from taking action on this at all, just take the leap forward and remind them that you love them.
Trust your parental feelings, your attachment to your child. Forget about what experts say the right way or wrong way is to go. Just express your love to them in a way that works for you. Ultimately, that's my best advice on it. But I'll go into more detail as well...
How do you feel safe expressing love? We talked in episode 27 about the four ways that children will receive expressions of love in ways that they will understand:
say it out loud
write it down
Out of these four, which one feels safe for you? It's important that it feel safe so that it comes across as genuine when you express it to your child/teen. If you don't feel comfortable expressing love through physical affection, then putting your arm around your shut down down is going to feel very tense, anxiety-producing and awkward. It's gonna backfire, potentially.
But if saying it out loud is something you can do, then start there. Start where you already feel a strength or where you're willing to grow. Writing it down is often times easier for parents.
We should also consider - How will they take it in? Someone in shut down generally needs:
a gentle approach, slow movements, calm and quiet. So let's take a look at our four ways of expressing love and how they might look:
SAYING IT OUT LOUD
I think this is a decent way to go, if you can handle it. Saying it out loud can be gentle, calm and quiet. It can be done over the phone, it can be done in person, it can be done in a whisper or a regular voice. Singing it in a song might be too much, but maybe not. If you can pull it off, go for it.
I'd encourage parents to approach a kid in shut down with a lot of calm and quiet. It might mean sitting next to your kid and allowing some silence. Or sitting on the floor with them. Doing so without distractions is important - so maybe in their room and not in the family room where there's more commotion. Make sure you have the time to sit in silence and allow your compassion to come forward.
WRITING IT DOWN
This is probably a very safe way to receive love for a kid in shut down. In fact, I've met with many kids as a therapist that use journaling or write letters as a way to express themselves, even to their parents. It's safe, it's from a distance, it's quiet and you don't need to be there to see the reaction of the person reading it.
I think writing a letter is a great idea. I also think writing a brief note is a great idea. Heck, it could be an "I love you" through a text message. Many of the parents I've worked with do this and say it's a solid approach for them. It's meeting the kid where they're at - their devices.
Reading these little notes or longer letters brings a small (or big) sense of connection for kids - in a safe way. They can choose to read them or not, as many times as they like and they can return to the written messages easily.
I think this can work wonders, but it's easy to do too much. A kid in shut down needs a gentle, slow approach. So running up to them and giving them a squeeze that lifts them off the ground might be overdoing it. But sitting next to them in silence, or giving them an ear to listen, then following it up with a hug can be powerful.
You may be able to simply approach them and give them some physical affection and they're okay with it. Or they're so desperate for connection they accept it.
A kid in shut down isn't going to be going outside and playing baseball or handball. They're probably going to want to be indoors and isolating. So playing may not be a hugely physical act. It might be more of a board game or video game type of play. But even video games require some level sympathetic energy to really play them as there's a large component of competitiveness oftentimes.
Board games might be a safer route: chess, Risk, Monopoly, whatever you got. This can be a good, safe way to connect, make small bits of eye contact or chuckles here and there and start climbing the polyvagal ladder.
Again, these are some detailed thoughts about the 4 ways, but ultimately, I recommend you listen to you. Feel free to say "Damn it all" and express love in the way and the intensity that feels the most genuine to you. As long as it comes from a place of empathetic and loving compassion, I don't think you can go wrong. But if for some reason it doesn't go the way you have in your head, you can always try again the next day.
Oh and by the way, approach your kids without an agenda. Don't go in there with the intent of hearing "I love you" back or even them being able to receive your message of love. Ideally, that's what happens. But we express love to our kids or anyone else because... we love them. And we want them to know it and hopefully feel it too. But that's it. Your goal is to express your love. Whatever happens within them after that is out of your hands.