At a glance
Showing empathy involves understanding what your child is going through.
It can be hard to show empathy when you’re frustrated about a situation.
Acknowledging and valuing your child’s feelings is a powerful way to connect.
Imagine this scenario: Your child has trouble getting organized and out the door for school. This morning, you’re both going to be late, and it’s the third time this week. Frustrated, you yell for your child to hurry up.
Your reaction is understandable. Neither of you can afford to constantly be late, and your child needs to learn strategies to manage time better.
Reacting with frustration puts the focus on how you feel rather than on what’s happening with your child, who may be struggling to get ready.
Showing empathy can change the dynamic. It lets you acknowledge not only what you see and feel but also what your child is feeling. It helps you stop and think about what you may not be seeing.
Learn more about empathy and why it’s important.
What empathy is and isn’t
Empathy is a way of connecting. It shows kids you know they’re experiencing something — even if you don’t understand exactly how it feels to them. Empathy says: “I want you to know you’re not alone. And I want to understand how this feels to you.”
Empathy is also a powerful tool to help you understand what’s behind behavior. It can help you and your child work together as a team to handle challenges as they come up. And it can even help you connect during difficult moments.
Empathy isn’t the same thing as sympathy, though. When you show sympathy, you may feel sorry for your child. You feel bad that something is upsetting or hard for your child. And that can lead you to lower your expectations.
Being empathetic doesn’t mean you have to lower your expectations. You can validate your child’s feelings and experience and still hold high standards. When you connect and show empathy, you can stress your belief that your child is strong and capable.
There are four main elements of empathy:
1. Take someone else’s perspective.
Put your own feelings and reactions aside to see the situation through your child’s eyes. Ask yourself: Do I believe my child is trying their best?
2. Put aside judgment.
Take a step back before jumping to conclusions about what’s going on with your child. Ask yourself: What more do I need to know about what’s going on here?
3. Understand your child’s feelings.
Tap into your own experiences to find a way to get what your child is feeling. Try to remember a time when you felt the same way. (Be careful not to overdo it, though. Kids have their own unique experiences.) Ask yourself: What else do I need to learn about how my child is seeing or reacting to what’s going on here?
4. Communicate that you understand.
Let your child express feelings without jumping in with “fix it” phrases like “what you need to do is….” Instead, try reflective phrases like “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you….” Ask yourself: How am I reacting in the moment? What do I need to do to let my child know I’m listening?
Empathy and emotions
Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry, but it is about feelings. To react with empathy, you have to understand what your child is struggling with — both the challenges your child is facing and how they affect your child’s feelings.
It can be easy to assume you know the reasons behind your child’s actions. For example, if your child hides when family members come for a visit, you may wonder why your kid is being so rude. In reality, your child may be feeling overwhelmed and trying to take a quiet moment.
Tuning in to kids’ emotions shows that you understand and accept them. It also gives families a better way to talk to about behavior.
But it’s also important to acknowledge your own emotions. What’s going on with your child in those stressful moments has an emotional impact on you, too. It’s hard to show empathy if you’re frustrated or angry. So it’s OK to give yourself a minute before you respond.
When you’re ready to be empathetic, it shows that you’re trying to get past your own feelings to understand your child’s perspective. Watching you model self-control can help your child manage feelings more effectively, too.
How to speak to kids with empathy
It’s one thing to understand the importance of empathy and another to know how to express it. When parents and caregivers speak without empathy, they might say things like: “If you had just studied harder, you would have done better.”
This type of reaction doesn’t acknowledge the feelings or challenges behind a behavior. And when kids hear things like that, they’re not motivated to change.
This reaction, on the other hand, shows empathy: “I know this material is hard for you, but you really didn’t spend much time studying. Next time, we’ll make a study plan. And if you need help, we’ll talk about that, too.”
Just that small change in approach can make a big difference in what kids hear and feel, and how willing they are to keep working on things that are difficult.
Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for your child.
Empathy is the ability to sincerely say to your child, “You’re not alone, and I want to understand how this feels to you.”
Responding to your child with empathy takes practice but can have huge benefits.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Donald Deshler, PhD is a professor in the school of education. He is the former director of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KUCRL).