Responding Empathically to Your Child
Responding empathically, or making empathic statements, is one of the most important ways of responding to your child, however it is frequently underused by parents. Parents often respond to their child by asking questions or by expressing their own feelings or opinions usually in order to try to fix the problem for their child. Asking questions to children usually makes children less inclined to express themselves. The same goes when parents start expressing their feelings and opinions. The result is parents often inadvertently shut down their children by using inappropriate responses.
Use it when:
- You notice your child seems to be feeling a certain way, or
- Your child is telling you something
How to Make an Empathic Statement:
- Think about how your child might be feeling and say this out loud to him or her as a statement, not as a question
- To help your child express his or her feelings and thoughts to you so you can understand your child better; this strengthens the parent-child relationship
- To help your child develop an emotional vocabulary; this is the foundation for your child’s emotional health
- To encourage the development of empathy in your child; this is an important social skill for your child to learn
Examples of How You Can Make an Empathic Statement:
a) Say what you think your child is feeling when you notice a feeling is coming up in your child in the here-and-now:
Here is a list of common feelings that you can use with your child (note: there are many more feelings than those listed here; these are the basic feelings that all children should have an understanding of; you may want to add more to the list).
happy, sad, worried, excited, frustrated, proud, angry, scared, afraid, safe, loving, relaxed, disappointed, interested, silly, nervous, confident, strong, surprised, confused, jealous, lonely, shy, hurt, guilty, embarrassed, bored, brave, relieved, disgusted
“That’s frustrating for you when you can’t get the pieces together”
“I can see that you look relieved”
“It sounds like you feel excited because you got invited to the party”
“I’m noticing that you are looking really sad”
“You’re feeling very proud for putting that bike together”
“You are so angry with me because I said you could not go out to play right now”
“It looks like you are feeling relaxed when you lie down on those pillows”
“I can see that you are feeling scared”
“Looks like you are really interested in that book”
“It seems like you are worried about something”
“It looks like you are feeling a little bit shy”
“Sounds like you could be feeling lonely because everyone else is going”
b) Say what you think your child was feeling when your child is telling you about something that happened to him or her:
“Sounds like you were very happy when you won that game”
“I bet you felt disappointed when she said that”
“So when Jamie pushed you, you felt very angry”
“You were frustrated when your teacher wouldn’t let you use the glue”
“Sounds like you were really feeling nervous about that test”
“Wow, you were confused when you got to that point!”
“So you felt guilty when you told Maria about it”
“I guess you would have felt hurt when Jack said that”
“So you felt very confident after that”
“It sounds like you were feeling safe when Dad was there”
“So when Heather added the cream to the recipe, you felt disgusted”
c) Say what you think your child likes or wants (or doesn’t like or doesn’t want):
“I can see you really like eating that ice cream”
“You want to play with your dolls now”
“You don’t like it when Julie runs away from you”
“You really don’t want to go home now”
“You really wish that we could go to Disneyland”
“You didn’t like it when the good guy got hurt”
“I can see you like going to the park”
Important Point to Remember:
You can still use this when:
- Your child is asking you for something and you cannot give what is being asked for
- Your child is telling you something and you don’t agree with your child’s point of view
You can always identify and acknowledge your child’s feelings, likes and wants without giving in to your child, or in other words, you can respect and understand your child’s feelings but still stay firm with your rules and limits.
“I can see you are really angry with me, but the rule is no eating cookies before dinner”
“You are really frustrated that I said you cannot go to Drew’s house after school today, but today you need to go to your soccer practice”
“You really wish we could go to Playland this afternoon, but I cannot take you today”
“You are really sad because you thought we were going to the park today, but tomorrow is the day for the park”
“You were so angry at Michelle that you hit her, but hitting is not okay; the rule is no hurting others”
How Does Responding Empathically Look in Real Life?
Your child tells you quietly looking down at the floor that he lost his ball at school.
Instead of responding to your child by asking a question (“How did you lose your ball?”) or with your feelings about the situation (“Oh no, now you’ve lost another ball!”), respond to your child with an empathic statement:
- Parent: “I can see you look really sad that you lost your ball.”
- Child: “Yeah, John kicked it away from me when I was trying to get it”
Resist the urge to ask questions or to respond with your feelings or point of view!! Again, use another empathic statement:
- Parent: “Sounds like you might have felt angry that he would kick your ball away.”
- Child: “Yeah, and we were just playing with it together and then all of a sudden Joey told him to kick it away.”
Notice how the child is telling you more about the situation without you asking any questions. Keep on making empathic statements for as long as you can, instead of falling back into the old habits of asking questions or expressing your feelings and points of view.
- Parent: “Wow, I bet you didn’t like that when Joey said that to John.”
- Child: “No Joey’s stupid; he hid my pencil last week”
Resist the urge to correct your child about calling Joey stupid! Your goal right now is not to teach or correct your child, but to respond to your child with empathy and understanding. Teaching and correcting can be done at other times.
- Parent: “I guess you felt angry when you found out he was the one who hid your pencil”
- Child: “Yeah, Joey is mean to all the other kids too; nobody likes him.”
Notice how your child has (a) told you a lot about the situation, (b) has come to an important conclusion by him or herself without you asking questions or lecturing him, and (c) is likely feeling very close and connected to you because you are on his side in this conversation.
I encourage you to give this a try and see how many empathic statements you can use without asking your child a question or giving your point of view.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
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