Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My daughter says “you can’t control my thoughts” when I try to comfort her. What can I do?

She may need help developing strategies she can use when she's upset

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My 7-year-old is generally a great child with a healthy attitude. Sometimes, she does get 'stuck' in a situation though, and becomes hard to deal with. For example, she will get upset and say something to me like 'I can't move my legs to get on my bed' or 'my eyes are blurry and I can't see.' These are real for her; she gets very upset over them. I usually help her by speaking calmly, hugging her, distracting her, and helping her to talk through it. Recently during these episodes when I tell her I don't want her to be upset, she started saying to me 'you can't control my thoughts.' I'm just wondering what 'you can't control my thoughts' means for her. What is she looking for?

I don’t think we can know what “you can’t control my thoughts” means right now. It could be that she’s having some upsetting thoughts that she can’t get out of her head, or it may be that she’s trying to say something more like, “You don’t exactly know what I’m thinking or feeling, so you can’t change it.” Without more information it’s unclear what she means, but it does appear that she’s communicating distress, so it’s good that you’re looking for answers.

It sounds like your daughter might be feeling some anxiety. When kids are anxious or upset they can sometimes experience their anxiety through sensations in their body, which could explain why she is saying her eyes are blurry or she doesn’t feel like she can move. In the absence of a real medical or neurological condition, oftentimes we’d say that these things could be due to feeling tremendous stress or anxiety.

Every kid and every adult has situations where we feel completely overwhelmed, but those moments should be very infrequent and short-lived. If a child starts experiencing a lot of distress and it is impairing her ability to be part of her family, go to school, and function with her friends, it’s time to get concerned. So as a clinician I’d like to know how frequently these things happen.


If your daughter seems to be struggling too much, it’s a good idea to get a diagnostic evaluation to determine if she needs help. If she does, you should expect a treatment program that teaches your daughter strategies she can use when she’s having distressing thoughts or upsetting sensations. It should also guide you on how best to handle those situations as a parent, so you can continue doing a good job helping your daughter.