Dear Teen Parenting Coach

“Q: My Teen is Bottling Up His Emotions. How Can I Encourage Him to Share Them?”

Many teens resist sharing their feelings, fears, and hopes with parents, preferring to speak to friends or channel emotions through activities. To get your teen to open up to you, try speaking about feelings indirectly.

Teen boy alone in his room, isolated.

Q: “My teen son has ADHD, and I worry that he’s hiding and bottling up his emotions around me. I seldom hear from him anymore about his days and the things on his mind. Why does he do this? How can I get him to be more open with me about his emotions?”

Suppressing our feelings is never healthy. Teens, especially teens with ADHD, may experience intense emotions and reactions, so it’s all the more important for them to understand ADHD’s role, how to self-regulate, and how to find healthy outlets for expressing emotions.

Why Teens Bottle Up Emotions

While it’s great that you want your son to be comfortable sharing his feelings with you, it’s important to remember that teenagers can be especially selective about where, when, and with whom they share emotions.

[Read: How Do I Teach My Teen to Manage Emotions?]

1. Independence. It’s developmentally appropriate for adolescents to start figuring things out for themselves. Your teen may be dealing with deeply personal and confusing questions. Talking with parents about these topics might be the last thing on his mind.

2. Changing expectations. With social distancing and remote learning during the pandemic, our teens are overwhelmed on all fronts. Without friends nearby or the structure of in-person school, our teens are under greater pressure to be self-reliant. This expectation can extend to coping — and doing so by keeping feelings bottled up inside.

To be clear, just because your teen doesn’t open up to you doesn’t mean he isn’t opening up at all. It could be the case that he is talking about his feelings with friends, as many teens do.

Still, if you want to encourage your teen to share his feelings, I recommend an indirect approach:

[Click to Read: Social Smarts – The Teen Years]

  • Ask “how” and “what” questions. Rather than bringing up emotions outright, gauge your son’s headspace by asking about context and events. Ask questions like, “How did you respond when that happened? What was it like for you? What would you have liked to do or experienced instead?”
  • Avoid eye contact. It sounds counterintuitive and may feel strange, but the most productive conversations with reluctant teens can sometimes happen when there’s no face-to-face contact. It relieves pressure and makes for a more casual environment for serious topics. Try having these conversations while taking a drive, going for a walk, cooking together in the kitchen, or engaging in another activity where fixed eye contact isn’t required.
  • Check in at night. I’ve found that teens tend to let down their guard as they’re winding down for bed. Try a quick check in at night by sitting on the edge of their bed or a nearby chair to make that connection and see if your child is more willing to open up.

Bottling Up Emotions: Next Steps

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