First Rule Of Parenting: Empathy First

They are little in a big world, we need to be there to catch them (photo cred: Jobrina Hofleit Photography)
They are little in a big world, we need to be there to catch them (photo cred: Jobrina Hofleit Photography)

Begin Scene:

Angry six year-old retreats to room, slamming door behind him.

After five minutes, mom goes to door and knocks lightly. Her face is concerned and she speaks softly:

MOM: “Hey, Buddy. Do you want me to make you some dinner?”

SON: (sounds of rustling paper) Thirty seconds later, son pushes a piece of paper under the door with the word “NO” written on it.

MOM: smiles to herself. Still standing outside his door, she asks “Are you okay?”

SON: (sounds of rustling paper) Thirty seconds later, son pushes a piece of paper under the door with the word “yes” written on it.

Mom smiles and walks away.

End Scene.

This happened in my house last week. My son was upset about something – can’t remember what that was anymore – and he went to his room for some “space.” This is a huge improvement from the toddler tantrums and the preschooler flailing’s about and even the five year-old holding his breath and hitting stuff stages. Okay, maybe there is still a bit of breath-holding, brow-furling, feet-stomping and name-calling. We are making progress, but there’s still much to learn.

Whenever my kids gets to a place where they are angry enough to hole themselves up in their room, I know something else is going on. It is never what it seems – surface level frustration just doesn’t exist once you’ve moved on to anger. Because, one thing I learned from my days as a therapist-in-training is that anger is a secondary emotion. It’s there to mask other things.

Anger hides all manner of other more overwhelming, but less charged, emotions like: sadness, fear, loneliness, longing, embarrassment, feeling ashamed, anxiety, being misunderstood – do I need to go on?


photo (4)

For a child who is still learning to regulate emotions, the ones hiding under their anger (like fear or sadness) can seem very big and overwhelming. Being angry is easy, it requires little or no risk. Being sad or afraid is very difficult, it requires vulnerability and the courage to feel. When our big, scary emotions start coming up, they usually get covered by anger and are expressed in a physical manner – like hitting or throwing something. It’s our job as parents to help our kids identify the big emotions, give them language for those feelings and help them find appropriate ways to express themselves in that moment. Trust me, in those split seconds of your kid retreating to their room and slamming the door, not many of us are thinking this way.

Parenting books will give you an arsenal of tools to “fix” the behavior, but it takes a moment of stepping back to really see what is happening. If we are in touch with our own emotions, we’ll be better equipped to identify theirs and be able to communicate and build relationship while making them feel safe to express the big scary stuff. Not so easy. I went to school for  eight years and trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist and did my own therapy for many years and this is still not my first instinct. But stepping back and looking at the whole picture always works for me.

I knew my son was okay. It took a moment, but once I identified what was going on, I met him on his terms to begin a conversation. See, I was gone all day and had just gotten home when the behavior started. I’m usually the constant for my kids. I pretty much never go anywhere. So, suffice it to say, when the constant goes away for the day you are sure to get some big feelings bubbling up that need expression – even if they are super excited to spend the entire day with their Daddy going on all kinds of boondoggles.

I thought back to other times my son had acted this was and took my best guess as to what was going on. He missed me and needed me to know that. He just didn’t know how to tell me and stewing in that big emotion all day had worn him down. He was emotionally exhausted.

With my son and I still separated by the safety of his bedroom door, I slid a note under to him (I met him on his terms). It said this:

“I LOVE YOU. I MISSED YOU.” I drew a little picture and signed it “Mommy.”

Rustling of paper, popping of pen caps.

My note emerges from beneath the door with a picture of his own. I smiled and walked away and returned to what I was doing. My kid was alright. My work was done.

About a minute later he came to me with his dinner request, written in his little notebook and with a picture of how he wanted it prepared. Of course, I obliged.

If we fix our eyes on always trying to solve the behavior issue, we miss what our kids are trying to tell us. We miss the depth of what they are feeling and we miss opportunities to grow and build relationship. My son was able to go to his room, have his moment and come out having expressed some pretty big emotional stuff for a six year-old. I was able to identify that and give him words to what he was feeling. Then he felt safe enough to come out on his own and even tell me what he needed. That’s huge.

I have no idea if what I am doing is right or if it’s working, but I’m certain it’s building relationship and for now I’m cool with that.

Published by pytallman

Wife, mother, Christ follower.

5 thoughts on “First Rule Of Parenting: Empathy First

  1. Love this perspective, so helpful – I have a 6 year old that communicates to me in notes right now too, especially on tough matters:)

    1. I think it may be a stage, but either way I am encouraged that we stay connected this way. I never want them to feel like I am not on their team…although, I know a day is coming where that will likely be the case. I’ll still keep planting the seeds and praying that isn’t the way it goes down 🙂 Love your comments, always!

      1. I hear ya!! It took us 6 years and actully happened shen i thought we had the least wiggle room ever but God was loud about it!

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