Drawing Out a Withdrawn Child

Drawing Out a Withdrawn Child

When a child has become withdrawn, lost touch with his wishes and is unable to access joy, what do you do? Use Language of Listening coaching skills and watch the magic unfold.

In a 4th grade leadership class, the topic was how to make your wishes come true. The children were to list important wishes/unimportant wishes, then list visioning/planning strategies and sub-strategies. Step #1 was to copy the following statements and fill in the blanks with wishes:

"I want to be _____"

"I want to be _____"

The teacher directed me to a quiet, withdrawn boy who was staring at a blank sheet of paper on the table in front of him. He looked sad and uncomfortable and was keenly aware that the other kids were busily writing, and he was not.

I asked him if I could sit beside him. He nodded, I pulled up a chair and quietly made an observation:

SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS): "Hmm. You're not writing your wishes."


Child: "I don't have any."

He started fidgeting nervously with a marker. Since "knowing things" helps meet a child's need for power, I started a conversation with him about something he knew — his family. I explained that I knew his mother and remembered that he had younger siblings. I stopped there so he could tell me the rest, and he did.

He told me they were boy and girl twins. Then he told me a little more about how they were always bothering him and said he wished they would leave him alone. I said "alone time" sounded like it might be a wish he could write down if he wanted to, but he declined.

Since wishes seemed out of reach for the moment, I suggested that he try thinking of something more immediate, maybe something he liked or wanted. He perked up a little at that thought, opened the marker and paused.

From his previous comment, I guessed he might appreciate some time alone to try out this new idea, so I stepped away to work with some other children. When I came back he had copied the two "I want to be _____" statements on his paper. Though they remained blank, I recognized that as progress and made another observation:

SWYS: "Looks like you think you might be able to find some things you want to be."


Child: "I'm trying to think of the words."


CAN DO: "You can describe what you want to be to me and see if that helps you find the words."


Child: "No. I'm just thinking of them."


SWYS: "You want to think of them yourself."


Child: (nods)

Respecting his wishes, I went away again, and when I came back this time I saw that he had filled in the blanks with "happy" and "joyful." My heart ached at the contrast between what he had written and the sad, withdrawn little boy sitting in front of me.

The teacher had moved on to visioning and strategizing, and he put his marker down. I clarified that for him by asking how he could be happy or joyful. He couldn't think of any way.

Thinking "could," like wishes, might be too distant, I asked him to think of times when he already felt happy and joyful. That was much easier, and he quickly came up with this strategy: "Relax and think of things I like." When I asked when that happens, he said, "When I'm asleep." So I suggested he write that down as a strategy, and he jumped on it like he had just been given permission to write something he hadn't thought would be OK.

Then I asked if he could think of any way he could relax and think of things he likes when he is awake so he could feel happy and joyful then, too. He thought a minute then brightened and said, "When I'm alone!" and immediately wrote down, "Alone time" with relish like he had just claimed a prize. He finally had permission to want the thing he had wanted all along.

Then the most wonderful thing happened. When it was OK for him to want alone time, he no longer needed it and immediately joined into a conversation with the little girls sitting at the next table. His entire demeanor shifted and he became happy and joyful as he talked and giggled with the girls. I almost laughed out loud when the teacher had to ask him to quiet down so she could teach. He continued to be relaxed and engaged with the other children for the remainder of the class.

I talked to his mother afterward, and she said they'd had lots of family around for the past month, and he'd been sharing a room with his siblings. She was relieved to hear that he knew what he wanted and said she would work with him to get it.

Permission to want what he wanted, put him back in touch with his joy.


  1. sandsock |

    I love, love your website. I just heard your talk and you mentioned an playtime date with your children to practice SWYS. My children are upper elementary, we have past the “pretend tea” time. I don’t have any ideas about playtime dates, can you give me some rules or parameters that might help me practice SWYS during that time. I love that you said 1 hour a week, so doable, but what else do I do?

    • Sandsock, thank you for letting me know you love my website. I’m so glad you got to hear my talk. It must have been this interview I did with Jacqueline Green:

      The playtimes I talked about can be done with children of any age above about 2, and because your focus during your one-on-one time together is completely on the child, 1/2 hour a week is all it takes to rebuild a relationship and/or stay closely connected. If you stay true to the model, the results can be amazing.

      The traditional format that I learned from world renowned play therapist Dr. Garry Landreth has been published by my colleague Dr. Theresa Kellam in her book Parent Survival Guide:

      Substituting the three coaching skills I teach (SAY WHAT YOU SEE, STRENGTHs, CAN DOs) for the skills she shares in her book makes it much easier to do. The point is to follow the child’s lead inside your boundaries.

      The traditional format uses a prescribed set of non-directional toys that will help children explore the themes and challenges they face in their lives. Upper elementary kids are still kids and when given the chance, without any pressure or expectations, will play with these toys. Many parents have been surprised by this.

      If you are starting with a teen, other settings are recommended. In a section in her book entitled, “Where Do I Go from Here,” Theresa discusses several options. Using my approach with teens, you would basically find an activity that your child loves, set a weekly appointment to be there with them, and spend the full 1/2 hr saying what you see, pointing out strengths, and offering can do’s as needed while the teen leads the activity. They could involve you in the activity or not. It could be baking, basket ball, and even a video game…as long as the child is directing their own actions and yours.

      When you observe first before saying what you see, you will begin to see more and more strengths, which will help you trust your child more, and require fewer and fewer can do’s other than a supportive, “Hmm. Must be something you can do,” when your child faces a challenge. And they will, because when put in the lead with a supportive parent, children create exactly the right level of challenge for their growth.

      Power Playtime is magical, whatever the setting. I’m so glad you are interested in trying it out. It’s the best way I know to master these skills and bring out the greatness in any child.

      I would love to hear how it goes when you try it. Just drop me a note on my contact page to let me know.

      P.S. I apologize for the delay in responding to you. My website was not notifying me of readers’ comments, and I’m just now catching up.

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