All we are given is possibilities—
to make ourselves one thing or another.


1. Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings

Part 1

When kids feel right, they’ll behave right.

I was telling my children over and over again not to trust their own perceptions but to rely on mine instead.

When I’m upset or hurting, the last thing I want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology, or the other fellow’s point of view. That kind of talk makes me only feel worse than before. Pity leaves me feeling pitiful; questions put me on the defensive; and most infuriating of all is to hear that I have no reason to feel what I’m feeling.
But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me, and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem.

But the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our “mother tongue.” Most of us grew up having our feelings denied.


  1. Listen with full attention.
  2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word—“Oh” . . . “Mmm” . . . “I see.”
  3. Give their feelings a name.
  4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.

Sometimes a sympathetic silence is all a child needs.

It’s hard for a child to think clearly or constructively when someone is questioning, blaming, or advising her.

Words like these (Oh, hmmm, I see), coupled with a caring attitude, are invitations to a child to explore her own thoughts and feelings, and possibly come up with her own solutions.

Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what she is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged her inner experience.

When children want something they can’t have, adults usually respond with logical explanations of why they can’t have it. Often, the harder we explain, the harder they protest.
Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes reality easier to bear.

more important than any words we use is our attitude.
It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to a child’s heart.

it’s important that we give our children a vocabulary for their inner reality. Once they have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves.


The bus driver yelled at me and everybody laughed.
=> That must have been embarassing.

I'd like to punch that Michael in the node!
=> You must be very angry at him. He must have done something bad to you.

Just because of a little rain my teacher said we couldn't get on our field trip. She's dumb.
=> I'm sure you wanted to go so bad on that trip. What a deception. She must be afraid of the rain, or she didn't want to go out that much and it was just an excuse.

Mary invited me to her party, but I don't know…
=> You're happy to get invited, but you're not sure to go. It looks intimidating to accept. It's full of unknown. You're not sure if it's better to go or stay at home.

I don't know why teachers have to load you down with so much homework over the week-end!
=> It looks unfair, it's like spoiling your free time to enjoy the week-end. It seems a lot of work.

We had basketball practice today and I couldn't sink that ball once.
=> It must have been frustrating. It looks hard. It must have been discouraging.

Janey is moving away and she's my best friend.
=> What a heart-breaking story. You must appreciate her very much. This friendship seems to matter a lot to you.

Did you notice how much thought and effort it takes to let a child know you have a sense of what it is he or she might be feeling? For most of us it doesn’t come naturally to say things like:

“Boy, you sound angry!” or
“That must have been a disappointment for you,” or
“Hmm. You seem to be having some doubts about going to that party,” or
“Sounds as if you really resent all that homework,” or
“Oh, that must have been so frustrating!” or
“To have a dear friend move away can be pretty upsetting.”

And yet it’s statements like these that give children comfort and free them to begin to deal with their problems.
The easiest way to learn a new word is to hear it used in context.

Hold off on giving advice. I know how tempting it is to try to solve a child’s problem with an immediate solution.

“Ma, I’m tired.”
“Then lie down and rest.”

“I’m hungry.”
“Then eat something.”

“I’m not hungry.”
“Then don’t eat.”

Resist the temptation to “make better” instantly. Instead of giving advice, continue to accept and reflect on your child’s feelings.

Example what not to do:

I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
FATHER: Why? What happened?
SON: He threw my notebook in the dirt!
FATHER: Well, did you do something to him first?
SON: No!
FATHER: Are you sure?
SON: I swear, I never touched him.
FATHER: Well, Michael is your friend. If you take my advice, you’ll forget about the whole thing. You’re not so perfect, you know. Sometimes you start up and then blame someone else—the way you do with your brother.
SON: No, I don’t. He starts up with me first . . . Oh, I can’t talk to you.


I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
FATHER: Boy, you’re angry!
SON: I’d like to push his fat face in!
FATHER: You’re that mad at him!
SON: You know what that bully did? He grabbed my notebook at the bus stop and threw it in the dirt. And for no reason!
FATHER: Hmmmm!
SON: I bet he thought I was the one who broke his dumb clay bird in the art room.
FATHER: You think so.
SON: Yeah, he kept looking at me all the time he was crying.
SON: But I didn’t break it. I didn’t!
FATHER: You know you didn’t.
SON: Well, I didn’t do it on purpose! I couldn’t help it if that stupid Debby pushed me into the table.
FATHER: So Debby pushed you.
SON: Yeah. A lot of things got knocked down, but the only thing that broke was the bird. I didn’t mean to break it. His bird was good.
FATHER: You really didn’t mean to break it.
SON: No, but he wouldn’t believe me.
FATHER: You don’t think he’d believe you if you told him the truth.
SON: I dunno . . . I’m gonna tell him anyway—whether he believes me or not. And I think he should tell me he’s sorry for throwing my notebook in the dirt!

Part 2: Comments, questions and parent's stories

One father said that what helped him become more sensitive to his son’s emotional needs was when he began to equate the boy’s bruised, unhappy feelings with physical bruises. Somehow the image of a cut or a laceration helped him realize that his son required as prompt and serious attention for his hurt feelings as he would for a hurt knee.

Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”)
It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?”

What people of all ages can use in a moment of distress is not agreement or disagreement; they need someone to recognize what it is they’re experiencing.

what’s most important is that, while he’s punching or pounding or drawing, I be there—watching him, letting him know that even his angriest feelings are understood and accepted.

dealing with feelings is an art, not a science. Yet we have faith (based upon years of observation) that parents, after some trial and error, can master the art. You’ll sense after a while what is helpful to your individual child and what isn’t. With practice you’ll soon discover what irritates and what comforts, what creates distance and what invites intimacy, what wounds and what heals. There is no substitute for your own sensitivity.

Parent's stories

I was so impressed with my son. I had no idea he could be so brave or so creative about handling his own problems. And all this came about because I just listened and kept out of his way.

I’ve made a tremendous discovery in this group. The more you try to push a child’s unhappy feelings away, the more he becomes stuck in them. The more comfortably you can accept the bad feelings, the easier it is for kids to let go of them. I guess you could say that if you want to have a happy family you’d better be prepared to permit the expression of a lot of unhappiness.

Then he did something that bowled me over. He ran over to his sister, who was watching the whole scene, and said, “Leslie, tell Mommy what you want. She’ll write it down for you, too.”
I guess what Jason likes about his “wish list” is that it shows that I not only know what he wants but that I care enough to put it in writing.

Engaging cooperation

Part 1

I know there were times when my own children thought of me as the “enemy”—the one who was always making them do what they didn’t want to do: “Wash your hands . . . Use your napkin . . . Keep your voices down . . . Hang up your coats . . . Did you do your homework? . . . Are you sure you brushed your teeth? . . . Come back and flush the toilet . . . Get into pajamas . . . Get into bed . . . Go to sleep.”

I was also the one who stopped them from doing what they wanted to do: “Don’t eat with your fingers . . . Don’t kick the table . . . Don’t throw dirt . . . Don’t jump on the sofa . . . Don’t pull the cat’s tail . . . Don’t put beans up your nose!”
The children’s attitude became “I’ll do what I want.” My attitude became “You’ll do as I say,” and the fight was on. It got to the point where my insides would churn every time I had to ask a child to do the simplest thing.

some of the methods most commonly used by adults to get children to cooperate:

I. Blaming and Accusing

“Your dirty fingerprints are on the door again! Why do you always do that? . . . What’s the matter with you anyway? Can’t you ever do anything right? . . . How many times do I have to tell you to use the doorknob? The trouble with you is you never listen.”

II. Name-Calling

“It’s below freezing today and you’re wearing a light jacket! How dumb can you get? Boy, that really is a stupid thing to do.”
“Here, let me fix the bike for you. You know how unmechanical you are.”
“Look at the way you eat! You’re disgusting.”
“You have to be a slob to keep such a filthy room. You live like an animal.”

III. Threats

“Just you touch that lamp once more and you’ll get a smack.”
“If you don’t spit that gum out this minute, I’m going to open your mouth and take it out.”
“If you’re not finished dressing by the time I count to three, I’m leaving without you!”

IV. Commands

“I want you to clean up your room right this minute.”
“Help me carry in the packages. Hurry up!”
“You still didn’t take out the garbage? Do it now! . . . What are you waiting for? Move!

V. Lecturing and Moralizing

“Do you think that was a nice thing to do—to grab that book from me? I can see you don’t realize how important good manners are. What you have to understand is that if we expect people to be polite to us, then we must be polite to them in return. You wouldn’t want anyone to grab from you, would you? Then you shouldn’t grab from anyone else. We do unto others as we would have others do unto us.”

VI. Warnings

“Watch it, you’ll burn yourself.”
“Careful, you’ll get hit by a car!”
“Don’t climb there! Do you want to fall?”
“Put on your sweater or you’ll catch a bad cold.”

VII. Martyrdom Statements

“Will you two stop that screaming! What are you trying to do to me . . . make me sick . . . give me a heart attack?”
“Wait till you have children of your own. Then you’ll know what aggravation is.”
“Do you see these gray hairs? That’s because of you. You’re putting me in my grave.”

VIII. Comparison

“Why can’t you be more like your brother? He always gets his work done ahead of time.”
“Lisa has such beautiful table manners. You’d never catch her eating with her fingers.”
“Why don’t you dress the way Gary does? He always looks so neat—short hair, shirt tucked in. It’s a pleasure to look at him.”

IX. Sarcasm

“You knew you had a test tomorrow and left your book in school? Oh, smart! That was a brilliant thing to do.”
“Is that what you’re wearing—polka dots and plaid? Well, you ought to get a lot of compliments today.”
“Is this the homework you’re bringing to school tomorrow? Well, maybe your teacher can read Chinese; I can’t.”

X. Prophecy

“You lied to me about your report card, didn’t you? Do you know what you’re going to be when you grow up? A person nobody can trust.”
“Just keep on being selfish. You’ll see, no one is ever going to want to play with you. You’ll have no friends.”
“All you ever do is complain. You’ve never once tried to help yourself. I can see you ten years from now—stuck with the same problems and still complaining.”

Now that you know how the “child” in you would react to these approaches, you might be interested in finding out the reaction of others who have tried this exercise:

Blaming and Accusing.

“The door is more important than I am” . . . “I’ll lie and tell her it wasn’t me” . . . “I’m a yuk” . . . “I’m shrinking” . . . “I want to call her a name” . . . “You say I never listen, so I won’t.”


“She’s right. I am stupid and unmechanical” . . . “Why even try?” . . . “I’ll fix her. Next time I won’t even wear a jacket” . . . “I hate her” . . . “Ho hum, there she goes again!”


“I’ll touch the lamp when she’s not looking” . . . “I want to cry” . . . “I’m afraid” . . . “Leave me alone.”


“Try and make me” . . . “I’m frightened” . . . “I don’t want to move” . . . “I hate his guts” . . . “Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble” . . . “How do you get transferred out of this lousy outfit?”

Lecturing and moralizing

Yak yak yak . . . Who’s even listening?” . . . “I’m dumb” . . . “I’m worthless” . . . “I want to get far away” . . . “Boring, boring, boring.”


“The world is scary, dangerous” . . . “How will I ever manage by myself? Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble.”

Martyrdom Statements

“I feel guilty” . . . “I’m scared. It’s my fault she’s sick” . . . “Who even cares?”


“She loves everyone more than me” . . . “I hate Lisa” . . . “I feel like a failure” . . . “I hate Gary, too.”


“I don’t like being made fun of. She’s mean” . . . “I’m humiliated, confused” . . . “Why try?” . . . “I’ll get back at her” . . . “No matter what I do, I can’t win” . . . “I’m boiling with resentment.”


“She’s right. I never will amount to anything” . . . “I can too be trusted; I’ll prove him wrong” . . . “It’s no use” . . . “I give up” . . . “I’m doomed.”

To Engage Cooperation

  1. Describe. Describe what you see or describe the problem.
  2. Give information.
  3. Say it with a word.
  4. Talk about your feelings.
  5. Write a note.

1. Describe

It's hard to do what needs to be done when people are telling what's wrong with you.
It's easier to concentrate on the problem when someone describes it to you.

2. Give informations

When grown-ups describe the problem, it gives children a chance to tell themselves what to do.
Information is a lot easier to take than accusation.

3. Say it with a word

When children are given information, they can usually figure out for themseleves what needs to be done.
Less is more: "Kids, Pajamas!" Instead of a long speach.

4. Talk about your feelings

Children are entitled to hear their parents' honest feelings.
By describing what we feel, we can be geniune without being hurtful.

5. Write a note


"Shhh ! Mommy and Daddy are sleeping."
"Hi ! Come on in! Love, Mom and Dad"

I came home from a meeting, tripped over my daughter’s skates in the hall, and sweetly told her, “Skates belong in the closet.” I thought I was wonderful. When she looked up at me blankly, and then went back to reading her book, I hit her.
I’ve since learned two things:

  1. It’s important to be authentic. Sounding patient when I’m feeling angry can only work against me.
  2. Just because I don’t “get through” the first time doesn’t mean I should revert to the old ways.

Summary: To engage a child's cooperation

  1. Describe what you see, or describe the problem.
    “There’s a wet towel on the bed.”
  2. Give information.
    “The towel is getting my blanket wet.”
  3. Say it with a word.
    “The towel!”
  4. Describe what you feel.
    “I don’t like sleeping in a wet bed!”
  5. Write a note.
    (above towel rack)
    Please put me back so I can dry.
    Your Towel