By Deborah Godfrey

I went on an errand one afternoon, leaving my 11 year old daughter home alone. Twenty minutes later, I returned to find my child sobbing hysterically on the couch. “What happened, what’s the matter?” I frantically asked her. She couldn’t answer, just continued to sob. I panicked. “Did someone hurt you?” She shook her head no. “Did you hurt yourself?” Again, no. Whew! “Briana! What happened?

Between sobs, I heard, “Ha-ha-mster.” Uh oh. We have a neighbor cat that the kids love to play with. I ran to the room, afraid to look. I peeked in the cage, little milkshake looked up, teeth barred, but alive! “She’s OK!” I yelled, Briana came in the room, still crying, she couldn’t believe it, she said it was laying with it’s leg hanging out of the cage and she was sure that cat had hurt it. She said, “I got so mad at the cat, I picked her up and tossed her outside”, (pretty violent for my normally loving daughter).

She still looked upset. I said, “Did you feel guilty that if the hamster was dead, it would have been your fault for letting the cat in?” Bingo! That was it. She nodded and began to sob again, this time I held her in my arms and let her cry. When she began to calm down, we were able to talk about what had happened and what she would do differently from then on. She was grateful, relieved and had learned a very important lesson about being responsible for keeping the bedroom door shut if she let the cat in.

A child’s feeling of guilt is an opportunity for the child to learn about responsibility and the consequences of his or her actions. Parental response to guilt can have a tremendous impact on the development (or lack) of a child’s conscience, the ability to learn right from wrong, and their level of social interest and responsibility. Children who are allowed to feel their feelings, and helped by their parents to identify their feelings and learn from them, are learning the skills to deal with life in a responsible way. Feelings in children that are suppressed, express themselves in a wide variety of misbehavior. Some of the ways which we as parents unknowingly stop feelings in children are:

  • Rescuing – “I’ll make sure you that cat stays out of the house from now on. You don’t worry about it anymore!”
  • Punishing – “You’re grounded from playing with the cat for one month!”
  • Solving the Problem – “Why don’t you just cheer up, we’ll go out for ice cream and you won’t have to think about it anymore.”
  • Moralizing – “How could you be so irresponsible? When I was young I was a very responsible girl and would never have let something like this happen!”
  • Denial – “You shouldn’t feel guilty, it wasn’t your fault!”
  • Humiliating – “I can’t believe you let this happen, how could you do this, I’m so ashamed of you. I’m going to make sure your friends know what you’ve done so you never let something like this happen again!”
  • Pitying – “Oh, honey, that bad cat, she shouldn’t be picking on the hamsters like that and scaring you!”
  • Lecturing – “From now on young lady, you are going to be more careful. I want you to always check before….”

(This is only a partial list of feeling stoppers, for more information please see pages 173-175 of the Redirecting Children’s Behavior Book, go to the “SHOP” link in the nav bar).

While our intention is to teach our child a lesson in the above examples, our results are often much different. The child focuses on how unfair we are, or how bad they are, rather than learning from their mistake. If we want our child to learn, it is critical that we address the feelings first and then work with them on dealing with the situation. Some ways to encourage feelings are:

  • Be Empathetic – “I understand how you are feeling; I have felt that too, it hurts doesn’t it?”
  • Validate Feelings – “You have a right to feel that way. If it happened to me, I probably would feel the same way.”
  • Identify Feelings – “Sounds like you feel _____.” or “That must feel______.” or “Are you feeling sad?”
  • Listen Intently – Make direct eye contact and listen for what is going on in her life. Listen as if it were your best friend talking to you. “I am listening. I am interested in what you are saying.”
  • Be Curious – “That’s interesting, I want to know more about how you are feeling about that.” or “How could you handle that next time?” or “Anything else?”
  • Affirm Feelings – “You’re feeling really sad!” or “I can see how angry you are!”
  • Invite Expression of Feelings – “Tell me more. I want to know how you feel.” “I’m on your side.”

Once you have acknowledged the child’s feeling, you will see visible relief in the child and will feel very close in your relationship. This is a wonderful window of opportunity for you to share in communication with your child, a time of feeling close and connected with your child. It is these times when you will feel you and your child are really listening to each other and hearing each other. When you build closeness in your relationship this way, you will find that you have much greater influence in your child’s thoughts and decisions, they will begin to ask you what you think!

Just to let you know, after we talked about the hamster incident, Briana saw that cat and went outside to apologize.

Do you need better attendance at your parent education programs? I split my time between The Hudson Valley, NY, So. California and Louisville, KY. If you are interested in parenting classes & workshops in a 3 hour radius of either, there are no travel fees. Please contact me for topics & rates. I love to travel & have an 8-week proposal for parenting workshops, intensive classes & instructor training in your area of the world. Please email me for details.


  1. Tiffani Says Reply

    I know empathy is particularly hard to deal with in terms of children. Sure, we’ve “been there, done that”, and were once young ourselves, but the older we get, it’s harder to remember that we were once in their shoes, experiencing and feeling the same things. Actively trying to remember, and stop ourselves from a typical, somewhat condescending comment such as “You’ll get over it” (it will only make the situation worse!!!), but communicate, ask questions, make your child laugh. Empathy is a hard quality to come by, even for adults and our so called experiences, but by learning and practicing it ourselves, it will also help our children. Great article, and even more so, great reminder on how to deal with kids and their reactions.

  2. Cynthia Washington Says Reply

    Thank you for the examples, this really have helped me to talk to my 13 year old.

    • Deb Says

      You’re welcome. Enjoy your teen, most parents dread the teen years, but with good communication, teens are so fun and interesting and never again will we have as much passion and energy…they grow out of the irritating behavior eventually!

  3. Rajalkashmi Says Reply

    Communicating with the children and and acknowledging theier feelings not only help them to take responsibility for their actions but to have them develop the trust in the parents and also to have high self esteem and face the challenges with confidence.

  4. Mechelle Liedeman Says Reply

    Thank you for your post,it was very informative and content i desperately needed to read as i sometimes feel at a loss coping with the highly pressured demands of motherhood.

    Thank you

  5. Nicholas Kleve Says Reply


    What a great post you shared about talking to our children. You are definitely correct. How we talk to our children drastically affects their feelings when it comes to responsibility, guilt, and consequences. Some parents I have worked with completely dismiss their children’s feelings in many of the ways you listed in your post. When parents are presented with opportunities of teachable moments, it is the truly effective parents who can keep their children’s feelings as a focus. I am not saying all disciplining consequences should result in just talking with their children “about their feelings.” Still, it is important to be aware of our children’s feelings and not dismiss those feelings. How we help our children handle their feelings growing up defines who they become as adults.

    Nicholas Kleve
    Professional Educator
    Youth Leadership and Parenting Expert

  6. Andrea Williams Says Reply

    Thank you for this reminder and examples. Guiding my 16 yr old son towards adulthood has made me more aware that I myself am a product of parenting that struggled. Aware of my own relationship to guilt and how that effects my dealing with his feelings.
    Empathy holds so many answers. Key is authenticity, self awareness and compassion for others and our self. I need to practice this same behaviour and inner dialogue to gradually unhook from some of my own childhood guilt issues. And keep on doing this even in times when it is unsuccessful. Thanks again. Helped me to refocus.

  7. Shannon Lewis Says Reply

    Thank you so much for this read. Sometimes, we really do think that we are handling situations the best way we know how. I really enjoy reading your blogs. I have used some of your alternative ways in communicating and found them very effective. Thank you.❤

  8. Kelly Says Reply

    Thank you so much for this story, I really enjoyed reading it. My own life is the reason that I believe this is such a important thing to teach parents! If parents can teach their kids this kind of trust in them, the kids will come to them about things that happen to them (physical and sexual abuse, drug use etc.) and many issues can be resolved or prevented. Raising a child with good trust in their parents will lead to a adult who will be able to properly trust others with their feelings and emotions as well. I grew up being punished for my emotions with statements like, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” And if you were emotional in my household you were ignored or told to go to your room get control of yourself and then try to talk. Because of that upbringing I didn’t reach out to my parents for help when I really needed it, but instead I walled myself off and kept everything to myself. Today I have incredible anxiety and I still really struggle with ever asking for help even from my husband. To me deep down somewhere, part of me still believes that asking for help is akin to shame and guilt caused by not being able to deal with the problem by myself. I am trying very hard to teach my child trust in me and give him a good ear for his feelings and emotions, but I definitely feel a bit of a emotional cripple when it comes to modeling that good behavior in my own life. After all children definitely do learn from our example much more than we wish they would. Thank you again for this story and thank you for reminding me to keep trying to be the best I can be for my family.

  9. How to help your children actually WANT to do the right thing - The Nanny Line Says Reply

    […] They aren’t going to get it right every time, so be patient. Continue to encourage them positively, and support them in the areas which you see they struggle most. Provide them with a safe and non-judgemental space to explain how they feel about what happened, and focus on what they could do differently next time. Some alternative phrases to affirm and support instead of humiliate and lecture can be found here. […]

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