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.

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