Signs & Symptoms


Is your child emotionally unaware?

Insight is a powerful thing. Understanding yourself is important as you develop from a young child to an adult.

Some children, adolescents and adults struggle to have insight or understanding into who they are personally, emotionally and in a relationship.

Parents of teenagers often voice concern that “my child is not responsible,” “he doesn’t have personal goals,” and “she wants to make YouTube videos as her career” or “he wants to be a professional gamer.” We often hear, “he or she is so smart, but . . .”

For parents, a lack of personal and emotional insight may not be obvious when a child is young. Subtle difficulties may be observed. Some children struggle to articulate their likes and dislikes. Others are not sure what to say about their own emotions.

When you ask, “how do you feel most of the time?” These kids often say, “I don’t know” or “bored.” Sometimes children who lack this insight appear to have a limited range of emotions. Facial expression may not vary. A child may use less than the typical amount of gestures to communicate.

Children with challenges in insight may be hard to read. These children have difficulty reading other people’s cues, emotions and interests. They often say they don’t ever think about feelings or think about themselves in relationship to others.

Typical children can generally describe their feelings fairly well. Gifted children, due to their tendency to be emotionally intense in concert with high intellect, should be able to describe their feelings.

It is cause for concern when describing feelings not something some a child can do, even while he or she may be great at describing other topics, such as the anatomy of the human body or the intricacies of the Battle of the Bulge.

When asking their child about feelings, parent might hear, “I don’t like talking about emotions,” “I can’t describe my feelings,” or “I don’t like all these questions.”

Below are examples of three children with limited personal and emotional insight.

Example 1: One clinician asked a child about his future and he said “I’d live in the Australian Outback by myself (he was 8). I’d have a big truck and I’d shoot you if you came there.” He said “Marriage? It’s to perpetuate the human species. I don’t want to do it.” When asked about feelings he said “I don’t know. I’m just bored.” He denied experiencing any other emotions.

This child was very matter of fact and polite. He wanted to be alone, and he did not think about his feelings or have insight into himself. He was not unhappy, but he was a bit disconnected. His fantasy turned out to be related to a TV show he liked about the Outback. He needed support to develop who he was personally and emotionally. (He also needed to learn not to tell people he would shoot them.)

Example 2: A less extreme example includes the adolescent who explained that he was depressed last year. When asked about his emotions, he shared that he does not feel any. He said that his parents told him he was depressed. He noticed that he sometimes had a very blank feeling that other people called “depression.” He said, “we’ve been working on it,” referring to he and his parents.

He could not describe any emotion, but he did note that he was not depressed any longer. He was not able to articulate why or how he knew. His facial expression was limited in range, and he used little nonverbal communication (like gestures). He had experienced a successful school year with good grades and developed two friendships. He was 18 and with an overall IQ score in the Very Superior range and 99.9th percentile. Clinicians get concerned when we see a child with such a high IQ who is unable to talk openly about simple emotions or elaborate on emotional experiences during a conversation. He needed regular therapy to work on his own insight and to continue to develop reciprocal relationships.

Example 3: An adolescent girl presented with Above Average ability and a particularly strong vocabulary. She stared blankly at the examiner when she was asked, “what do you do for fun?” After a long pause with no exchange, the examiner followed up with “maybe some favorite games or books?” The teenager said, “both of those.”

When asked, “what will you do on vacation next week?” she again stared blankly. When the examiner confirmed, “aren’t you going on vacation?” she said, “yes.” This teenager was smart, kind, compliant and unable to elaborate. She had no idea how she was doing in life, how she felt or what her strengths were as a person. She repeated 5 times in her interview that she had “wonderful friends” and that “friends don’t judge you outwardly.” She could offer no examples beyond these statements.

What do challenges with Insight look like?

  • Unable to comment on his own emotions?
  • Struggling to describe or explain her feelings?
  • Surprisingly unconcerned about the world outside his head?
  • Irresponsible or immature?
  • Wanting to engage with others but having no idea what to say?
  • Unable to articulate a long-term goal?
  • Unsure how to answer an open-ended question?
  • Friendly and kind but unable to make real, close connections with peers?
  • Not seeming to really understand his or herself personally, emotionally and in relationship to goals and responsibilities?

Why is Insight happening?

Insight is essentially knowing oneself. It is the ability to remember and describe past experiences. It is the skill of knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses. In psychology, we don’t expect a lot of insight in kids under ten-years-old as this is a higher level social skill that develops later. Insight includes the ability to understand oneself personally, emotionally, and in a relationship. If insight is a concern, you will notice this person struggles with describing emotions and sometimes has difficulty discussing thoughts and personal experiences. They may overreact to distressing events and be unable to explain these reactions to others. This person may be hard to read emotionally. You may see that they have an easier time with fact-based questions and a harder time talking about themselves. In school, they tend to dislike writing assignments such as personal narratives, where they are supposed to talk about themselves or tell a story from their own life. It can be hard for teens and adults with this issue to fill out job applications or complete interviews.

How can I manage Insight at home?

Practice with your child. Label your own emotional experiences and mention your coping strategies. Comment once on an emotion your child may be feeling when he or she appears to be having a positive or negative emotional experience. If the experience is negative, use few words and guide your child to calm down with a strategy that works for him or her (listening to music, jumping on a trampoline, snuggling under a blanket, being alone in his room). Later, when everyone is calm, comment on the emotion and try to have a discussion about what experiences and small feelings led to bigger feelings and less control.

Model and role-play: Engage in a role-playing activity with your child. Take pictures of each of you making the face you would make when you experience a certain emotion. Put these pictures in an emotion book, and note the experiences on each emotion page that can lead you to feel that way. Use this book as a reference together to discuss feelings.

Feedback is king: Give specific praise and feedback so your child has a clear view of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Be positive yet realistic. Don’t tell your child he’s the next Ronaldo in soccer if he isn’t. Instead, point out attributes that your child can verify. For example, “You got the highest grade in class on your math test. You are really good at math.”

Help your child understand who he is: Encourage and voice your child’s strengths in emotional attributes like kindness, positivity, and willingness to help others. Be clear and specific. Many children with autism never say a negative word about another person. Many children are kind and accepting of everyone, which needs to be voiced to that child as a positive attribute.

Seek therapy: A child with poor personal and emotional insight needs to participate in psychotherapy with a clinician who works with children and teens on the Autism Spectrum. When it does not come naturally to express emotions and make those personal connections, therapy can help. A social group may also provide a chance to learn more about oneself and about others.

Encourage goal setting: For the personal responsibility component, try to notice strengths and make reasonable connections like “You work so well with the younger kids at the community center; maybe you could do a job that involves children.” Or “You are a computer whiz; you could think about computer science or computer programming as a career (instead of professional gamer).”

Encourage authentic experiences. Most children feel more engaged in an activity when they see the purpose or the reason behind doing something. A week-long shadow internship in a career of interest can be helpful in seeing why we take certain classes or need to make certain grades. These kids and teenagers also do very well with teachers who see their strengths and can think outside the box in terms of assignments and encouragement in a certain field or subject.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Insight?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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