Teaching empathy through role modelling

The Unsent Letter

Having a teenager in the house can be difficult at the best of times. And at the moment I’m sure many of you will know, it’s even worse.

Our teenager daughter has just had a meltdown to end all meltdowns!

You will know that the best thing to do in these circumstances is to back off, let them calm down and start to think logically! And if you didn’t know that then believe me, this is really imperative. When she is having a massive teen tantrum, her survival brain takes over and logic goes out of the window! 

A really good way I have found to deal with the strops and tantrums, especially when a teenager just storms off and then won’t engage in conversation when they are calmer, is to write them a letter. I usually leave the letter somewhere she will find it - either with her iPad, or next to her phone when it is charging in the dock. Sometimes I might even post it under her bedroom door.

And sometimes I write a letter to offload my frustrations too! - The Unsent Letter!

It really helps to scribble it down after the heat of the moment! It gets frustrations off my chest.

The letter I do send will be very positive (because I don’t take these things personally - not really…. anyway. Well, perhaps sometimes - just a bit.) It will be an explanation of what happened and why, written in a really empathic and positive way. It will show an understanding of her feelings and that I really do see the reasons for her outburst.

And also, it will be an explanation of our feelings and perceptions too. Not to blame or make her feel guilty or ‘stupid’, as she herself might say. But hopefully to help her towards self-realisation and perhaps to encourage her to become more empathetic.

If we stand in other’s shoes, we can often see how they are thinking or feeling, and it will always be different to our own perception of things.

In the letter I might ask what she could have done differently - or even suggest a different option which could have created a better outcome. I then sign the letter off, usually telling her we love her and saying that I am there to talk to her, if she wants, when she is ready.

But in honesty I know, being only human, that sometimes what I really want to do is to react in the moment when she has the tantrum. To tell her what I really think. And sometimes I just want to react in a ‘not so positive way.’ I feel like being sarcastic or just telling it as it really is. Revenge!

Hence The Unsent Letter.  A one-sided conversation. A release.

Dear Daughter,

Well that was unnecessary wasn’t it! What were you thinking? There is no need to swear and shout at me like that.

No I am not  ……. !! And actually, I do care.  That is a spiteful thing to say.

Yes, I’m sure you are fed up with work! I’m fed up with it too. But you have done absolutely no work all day. You have refused - even though you know you should have done some! And you knew that you had your virtual lesson today.

What do you mean I should have reminded you??? I did!

Yes, I did - if you remember. I told you quite clearly at lunchtime, that you needed to be downstairs ready for your lesson at 4. I even asked if you had heard me. But you just looked at me in that spaced out way - like I was something the cat had dragged in, and then you sneered a reply at me with the curled- up lip, you do so gracefully! Then, having finished your sandwich you went back up to your room like a ferret scuttling back up a drainpipe.

What do you mean I could have reminded you nearer the time? I don’t see you at any other time - you are always in your room, or if you do deign to come downstairs for the measly hour we ask you too, you spend all the time you are in the same room as me shouting at me to leave you alone. Ignoring us, with your headphones on. On your phone.

No! I certainly could not come and knock on your door to tell you. Who do you think you are? You are 16 years old for goodness sake! It’s not my job! This isn’t a hotel and I’m not your servant!

And anyway, if I do knock on your door you just say “What…….!” with an air of disdain, and then expect me to conduct a conversation through the door! You can’t even be bothered to come and open it. It’s only 5 feet away from the edge of your bed!

No, I’m not always getting at you.

Yes, I know you set an alarm. But setting an alarm on your phone for 4pm doesn’t really work, does it?! Your phone is downstairs - you are upstairs! It takes 5 minutes for you to register that the alarm is even ringing when you have your headphones on in your room. Then another 5 to 10 minutes for you to stir yourself and actually begin to slope down the stairs like a sloth in slow motion. Then you have to get your lap-top out and set it up, sign into Zoom and start your lesson! How on earth are you going to be there on time to start your lesson at 4 o’clock?

Well. Yes! It does matter actually……!

It does make a difference to me! What makes you think it doesn’t.

And why should I leave you alone???

How dare you talk to me like that!

Storming off isn’t going to do any good either. Ok! Next time you slam the if the door like that if the glass breaks then you will be paying for it.

No! I know you don’t have enough money. Well why is that I wonder?

You know I don’t pay your pocket money when you don’t earn it. How on earth do you expect me to pay your pocket money when you refuse to do the things we have agreed. And let me remind you - we did agree, remember?

Well I’m sure you don’t care about any of it - but actually, we do.

No, it is not your right!

And talking of rights, if you do have rights, they come with responsibilities. And you have to earn your rights and take on your responsibilities!

Pocket money is a way of you earning. And if you haven’t made the right choices in order to earn your pocket money why should I pay it?

If you don’t go to work when you have a job, they don’t pay you!

Well I’m sure you don’t ‘give a monkey’s’ about getting a job, and it’s very unlikely that you will be able to get one if you don’t bother to turn up for your lessons!

With not so much love.


Well. As I breathe a sigh of relief having written this, it feels so therapeutic as I calmly screw it up and throw it in the bin. Feeling much more human I now write her a letter, having got rid of my anger and frustration. I can almost see the funny side of it all now.

It is so much better to get all the negative stuff off my chest in private and not in front of her!

So….. now to the letter I will send.

It will be thoughtful and positive as I am now feeling relaxed. I know she will read and digest this letter calmly, in her own time.

It will inevitably lead to an apology from her - it always does.

But more importantly, some understanding will hopefully have been passed on, which will manifest itself in time, when her emotional intelligence truly develops.

Little steps but teaching empathy through role modelling goes a long way!

Belinda Wells, Ollie Coach     

Belinda is an Ollie Coach and Foster Carer. Previously a Primary School Teacher, she now has over 20 years’ experience working with children. Her interests are psychology, how we think and why we behave as we do, and she loves learning and writing.  Belinda enjoys seeing the difference her work as an Ollie Coach can make to the children and families she works with.

To get in contact with Belinda email Belinda.wells@ollieandhissuperpowers.com