"Simple" Parenting: Empathy and Redirection

Simple parenting? I said SIMPLE...not easy. These are two simple, direct steps to help you navigate your younger or older child's big emotions and reactions. These steps are easier said that done, but totally doable for you with some ongoing, intentional. personal work.


Here is the scenario. Something happens and your child gets upset. Maybe they are angry or they cry. What do you do? How do handle intense emotions from a child or teenager? There are two very important steps to responding to intense emotions. Sometimes these steps take place quickly…they happen in a flash. Sometimes the steps takes longer. It just depends on the situation and the child’s personality.

Step One: Empathize. Sit with them in their anger or sadness…even or ESPECIALLY when their anger or sadness has to do with something you have done. Let them cry. Let them vent. Don’t change the subject. Be quiet. Don’t run away. Don’t lecture. Don’t teach. Put your phone down. Stay right there with them…in the moment. “You seem really upset. I am so sorry. I am sure this is hard.”

You CAN put boundaries on this step. You can ask for respect: “I know you are upset, but it isn’t ok to talk hatefully to me. I want to hear about it, but if you keep talking like that we will need to take a break.” “I know she made you angry, but you can’t throw your toy at her. It is ok to be angry. It isn’t ok to hurt someone. If you do that I will take it away.”

Just be careful that you aren’t confusing a teenager ‘s anger with disrespect. Being angry and expressing it is NOT the same thing as being disrespectful. Let them be upset. That is ok. Be a safe place for them to express their feelings…or they will find someplace else to do it.

Step Two: Redirect. They’ve cried, vented, stomped, maybe even punched a pillow. At some point it is ok to move on. “Hey, why don’t we go on a walk?” “Do you want to watch that new show with me?” “I need to go to work now. I love you. I’m so glad we had this time. If you still want to talk later let me know. Hey how is that school project going? It looked like you were doing a great job! Are going to work on it now?”

Here is what I have seen in parents (AHEM…including myself). Some parents are super good at empathizing. Some parents are wonderful at redirecting.

We often struggle to put these together.

Some of us struggle to tolerate negative emotions and that sitting with our child or teenager is TOUGH. We take everything they say so personally or as a sign that we have failed as a parent and we want to get away from that as fast as possible. Or, their experience is triggering a memory of a negative experience of our own and we want to rescue ourselves, ahem…I mean THEM…from our, ahem…I mean THEIR pain…so we turn on the positivity or redirect them as fast as possible.

Some of us struggle with redirecting. We are so good at empathizing and GOING THERE with someone emotionally that we find ourselves right there in the pit with them and unable to climb out. When we stay in the pit with them we are unable to give them perspective and help them move forward.

As parents it is important for us to learn to give both of these steps to our children because as adults WE need both of these steps to be healthy. When we sit with our teenager in the midst of their pain we are teaching them to tolerate negative emotions so they can sit with their own pain…and later the pain of others…without turning to unhealthy coping sources.

If we DON’T sit with the pain of our children…if we don’t model for them the tolerating of pain…they WILL find things to help them tolerate the pain that they stuff.

On the flipside, if we don’t help our children redirect they will not learn how to move forward, how to live life…how to get up and go to work, parent their children, and pay their bills…even while facing difficult things. More importantly they won’t learn how to pursue joy and appreciate the beauty of life even while the ugliness persists.

Both of these steps are vital. You can’t skip either one.

Certainly, personality plays a role here. Some individuals do not need as much time on either step. Also, if discipline (which is a whole other conversation) is part of the conversation it must also be worked in….usually after step 1. It would go something like: Step 1 (empathize), discipline, Step 1 again (empathize), redirect.

Usually if we are struggling to give either one of these steps to our children (and it IS a gift) it is because we are struggling to give them to ourselves.

Do you give yourself room to cry and to be angry…to be upset? Do you give yourself space to “sit” with these emotions?

How are you at redirecting yourself? Do you have things in life that you enjoy? Do you have outlets for your interests and abilities?

Think about it. Your child or teenager needs these steps. You do, too.

If you struggle to offer empathy and/or redirection to your child or teenager, a therapist who has training in parent coaching can help you do the work to build these important parenting skills.