How To Show Your Child Empathy

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Have you ever had a rough day?

Have you experienced a failure or setback at work?

Have you been hurt by the words or actions of others?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, you probably also have attempted to alleviate the accompanying ache by telling someone about it.

You do that because you want someone to hear you, to affirm the nature and intensity of the emotions you are experiencing and to simply be present while you verbally unload. And as a socially savvy adult, you probably know exactly who you can go to for those precious gifts, and who to avoid at all costs, i.e. “those” people at work, at family gatherings, at our children’s soccer games, who expend too much effort trying to help: giving advice, offering a different philosophical perspective, asking a drove of questions, pitying you, engaging in amateur psychoanalysis, or simply denying that you really feel that way.

What you want—what I find people need in most situations—is called an empathic response. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (1980), in their book “How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk,” define empathic response as this: “an attempt to tune into the feelings of another” (p. 8).

They also let us in on a huge secret: That need is no different for our children!

Kids also have rough days navigating their large and ever-changing world.

Kids also experience numerous challenges and occasional failures at school every day.

And kids are just as sensitive (if not more so than adults!) to the words, actions, and reactions of their friends and peers.

Therefore kids (just like us) need our empathy, our listening ears and understanding hearts much much more than they need our advice (“You should just tell your friend to stop calling you that!”), our denial (“You’re not hungry, you just ate a snack.”), our shallow philosophies (“Life is hard son; nothing is free”). But how do we—as parents, teachers, coaches, camp/small group leaders, really anyone with a youth in their life—learn and cultivate responses of empathy?

Thankfully, Faber and Mazlish offer us four ways to help children with their feelings:


Listen with full attention

Turn off the TV, unplug from the Internet, pause the game, set down the book, let the unfinished dinner sit for a few minutes and give your child your full, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart attention.

Sometimes a listening ear and a “sympathetic silence” is all a child needs to talk through a problem and come to a satisfying conclusion on his/her own.


Acknowledge their feelings with a word

“Oh”…”Mmmm”… “I see.” are great words to use in showing empathy.

Resist the urge to “fix,” ask questions, or give advice.

Children can think more clearly and constructively when they aren’t bombarded with clarifying questions, undercurrents of blame, and even well-meaning advice. Using simple words like “oh,” “really?”, “wow” (or even sounds like “Mmm” or “Ah”) with a genuinely caring attitude “are invitations to a child to explore his/her own thoughts and feelings, and possibly come up with her own solutions” (p. 13).


Give their feelings a name

Help the child find a name for their emotion: “You feel_________ because __________.” Or, “You look__________.” Or, “You’re so _______!”

Don’t worry, naming the feeling wont make it bigger or make your child more upset. Quite the opposite, helping the child name the feeling and attach it to their current experiences often decreases the expression of the emotion because the child feels understood and comforted; their inner experience was acknowledged. When a child’s emotion is denied (“Don’t get upset!” “It doesn’t hurt!” “You’re being unreasonable!”) it often leads to an increased expression of the emotion, and escalation of the accompanying behavior, because the child is trying even harder to get his/her point across.


Give them their wishes in fantasy

Sometimes logic and lengthy explanations, especially regarding why a child cannot have something or why something isn’t going to work out, are often unheard and simply unhelpful. The child still wants what he/she wants and sometimes just needs that desire to be acknowledge and shared in a playful way. So join them in their desire to _______ (have ice cream after breakfast! Go to Disneyland right now!) and create a fun-filled fantasy where you laugh and play out the dream together.

Why focus on empathy first? Why take the time and energy to learn a new way of relating to the children and teens in your life? Faber and Mazlish explain, “it’s important that we give our children a vocabulary for their inner reality. Once they have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves” (p.18). And isn’t that our goal as parents, educators and mentors? To increase independence, to cultivate self awareness, to provide a safe haven and be a safe person for our youth to step out from behind their socially acceptable façades and show us their inner core in action (Deak, 2002, p. 120) Therefore what becomes most important, or really foundational, is creating and nurturing those kind of relationships. We, as important adults in a child’s life, help enhance growth by providing frequent and safe interactions, opportunities for empathy.


Deak, J. (2002). Girls will be girls: Raising confident and courageous daughters.New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York, NY: Avon Books.

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