Why our kids won’t understand us until we understand them

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Apr 26, 2019

Photo by Tomas Vyšniauskas

If those I care about most were to characterize how I show my love for them, there are three words I hope they’d use.

One of those words is “empathetic.”

But I feel like I’m failing at it miserably.

This past Sunday night, Dave and I wanted to talk with one of our teenagers about something that was concerning us. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. But somehow the conversation turned a bad corner.

It plummeted downhill. Fast.

Our questions were met with tears and curt answers.

We agreed to end the conversation and try again ten minutes later.

Round two was no better.

More tears. Curt-er (yes, I made up that word) answers.

We ended the conversation and decided to give it a few days.

I was ticked. We had worked really hard to give our teenager a great weekend—full of fun with us, great time with friends, and lots of relaxation. And in exchange, we couldn’t even have a decent Sunday night discussion.

Sometimes when I’m riled up, doing something productive helps me calm down. So when my teenager went to their room, I grabbed my laptop and started editing a few documents the FYI team had sent me a few days prior.

One of them was a summary of highlights from our new Growing With parenting book. One of the goals of that book is to help parents appreciate the child they have not the child they wish they had.

Which got me thinking about the child I have. And all that child is navigating, juggling, and managing—which is far more than I did at that age. Some days it feels like they manage at age 16 just as much as I do now.

Suddenly I was empathizing with that child. And how the conversation with Dave and me felt to them. And how the conversation poked and prodded a few of their soft spots of insecurity and anxiety.

Hence the tears. And the very curt answers.

Parenting is far better when we journey with our child instead of judge them.

So is marriage. And work. And friendship. And pretty much every other relationship—both personal and professional.

Since last Sunday night, I find myself thinking about empathy all the time, and praying that God will give me more empathy—for my neighbor, my supervisor, and my teenager.

There’s a belief behind every behavior. If I can’t fathom my child’s behavior than I haven’t faced all they are navigating. In every conversation and interaction, I want to seek to understand before I seek to be understood.

At FYI, we’ve come to realize how important empathy is to good ministry. It’s one of the six core commitments in our Growing Young research and it’s the starting point for some new innovation models we’re developing.

When we train leaders and parents to empathize, we often show this 3-minute video narrated by Brené Brown. Based on research and my own experience, I’ve come to realize that it’s impossible for me to empathize with those I care about most if I’m…

1. Thinking “how dare they” (or the equivalent).

By definition, if I’m thinking “how could he…” or “how dare she…” then I’m failing to empathize, or feel with that other person. If I can’t fathom what they’ve done, then I haven’t yet put myself in their shoes.

2. Focusing more on my own wants and needs than theirs.

The conversation with my child was tainted more by what I longed for out of the conversation—connection with my child and a recognition of what both of us needed to change. What I had lost sight of was what they longed for: to have a mom who understood the pressures they navigated day after day.

3. Frustrated.

Three minutes into my conversation with my surly teenager, I was ticked. Anger and empathy cannot coexist.

So that Sunday night I put down my laptop, knocked on my child’s door, and apologized for my lack of empathy and understanding of all they were navigating. They forgave me. And we agreed to try to have the conversation later that week.

The third time was the charm. We both felt understood, and I think we both understood each other.

And I learned a powerful lesson: My teenagers likely won’t understand me until they know I’ve understood them.

Tweet: My teenagers likely won’t understand me until they know I’ve understood them.

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Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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