The jammies are on. The teeth are brushed. A
chapter in the book has been read. I turn out the
light and ask my daughter our nightly question, "Is
there anything about your day you want to tell me
about?" If I ask my daughter, Molly, to tell me her
feelings during the day, I get short answers.
There's so many more interesting things to do than
talk to dad about embarrassing stuff like feelings.
But when the only alternative is falling asleep, I
find Molly is more willing to open up. In fact,
tonight she has a lot to say.
"Dad... Elaine and Beth aren't the same. They're
just interested in boys and stuff. And they don't
want to play with me anymore. So I have to play
with Daisy and she is practically a toddler and
it's no fun."
We are at a family gathering. At eight years
old, Molly finds herself without a peer among her
cousins. Elaine and Beth are teenagers. Molly had
great fun with them last year and I had assumed
everything was going fine this year too. But now
Molly is starting to cry.
"They treat me like I'm a little kid. Like I
can't do stuff, like swim with them, because I'm
not responsible enough. They don't see that I am
responsible! I don't need to stay with the parents
all the time!"
I put my hand on Molly's back as she cries. It
is such a blessing to have Molly open her feelings
to me. I'm glad she feels safe enough to release
her pain through her tears. I'm grateful for the
chance to help her. But what do I say?
Is it a time for advice? Do I suggest, "Molly,
why don't you tell Elaine and Beth that you feel
old enough to play with them. And if they still
don't want to play, maybe you and Daisy can find
something to do that would really interest
Do I explain the situation as I see it? Do I
say, "Molly, Elaine and Beth probably feel the same
way about playing with you as you do about playing
with Daisy. You can't expect them to want to
include you all the time. You just have to make the
best of a difficult situation."
I imagine both options would frustrate Molly
further. She doesn't need advice, and she doesn't
want me to empathize with Elaine and Beth's
feelings. She needs help articulating her own
feelings and she needs to know that I understand.
If Molly has that support, she will be able to
figure out what to do.
This type of response is called "validating
feelings". It has two parts. First I reflect back
the feelings Molly has described or implied. This
lets her know I am listening and caring about how
I try it out with Molly by saying, "So you have
been feeling left out by Elaine and Beth, and stuck
playing with Daisy which isn't very fun for you.
And you want more respect for how responsible you
can be, rather than being seen as a 'little kid'.
Is that right?"
Molly whimpers her assent.
The second part of validating feelings is less
well understood. People need more than just to know
that their feelings have been heard. If reflection
is all we needed we could probably just talk to a
tape recorder and then play it back. There is a
deeper need that as a listener I am called to
The deeper need is to get help understanding
that our feeling make sense. To validate someone's
feelings fully is to let them know that you can see
why they feel the way they do. That is what helps
someone really feel understood.
I tell Molly, "I can see how it would feel bad
to get left out by Elaine and Beth, especially
after you had so much fun with them last year. And
it must be really frustrating to not get the
respect you know you deserve. I can also see how
playing with Daisy all day could get boring. All
that can easily add up to feeling pretty
"Will you sing me a lullaby?" Molly asks. She
seems ready to drift off to sleep. I didn't solve
her problem for her. But perhaps she now feels
content to simply have her feelings, and to let
© 2008, Tim
Other Father Issues,
* * *
Your children need your presence more than your
presents. - Jesse Jackson
Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family
Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He
specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples
Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached
at 831.464.2922 or through his website:
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