Aha! Parenting Blog

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When Empathy Doesn't "Work"

"I had just read Dr. Laura’s blog about staying calm and acknowledging his desires. When the screaming and stomping began, I stopped what I was doing and sat down next to my three year old. I made eye contact, listened to his complaint and did not let the screaming anger me; I then calmly explained that I hear him. I know cheesy poofs are so tasty and I love them too but he will have to wait half an hour until dinnertime. He blubbered briefly, collapsed into my arms for a minute and then went to play with his toys. My husband congratulated me on keeping my cool. The best part? He was perfectly pleasant the rest of the evening. Wow!"  –  Aimee

When parents begin using gentle guidance, they're often amazed by how well empathy "works" to calm their child. For most people, including children, just having our views and feelings acknowledged makes us feel better, so we're more cooperative. So once parents get past their fear of "agreeing" with their child's "negative emotions" -- empathy doesn't mean you agree -- they quickly learn to empathize when their child is having a hard time:

  • "Nothing's going right for you today, huh?"
  • "You wish you could have ice cream now, I hear you."
  • "I see how mad you are!"

In fact, empathy is so effective in reconnecting with our upset child and helping her calm down that it takes us by surprise when it "doesn't work."

But empathy isn't a trick to control the other person.  It's a means of connection, and of helping our child process emotion. So when empathy doesn't "work," consider whether you're really connecting, and whether you're helping your child with her emotions.

Here are the problems I hear most often from parents about "using" empathy:

1. "Empathy makes my child cry harder."

Yes, when we validate kids' feelings, the emotions do usually intensify. But we aren't creating those bad feelings. They're inside her anyway, driving her behavior. Think about a time when you had some big feelings locked up inside -- maybe something happened that was very upsetting. You were holding it together. Then someone arrived with whom you felt safe, and they hugged you, and you burst into tears. So when kids have big feelings and we empathize, they do get more in touch with their feelings. But that's a good thing. Because once they feel those emotions, the emotions evaporate. That's how emotions work.

2. "Empathy doesn't stop the tantrum."

Kids escalate when they don't feel heard, so if you can really help your child feel understood, that will in fact prevent a lot of tantrums. But when it doesn't, it's because your child just needs to cry and show you those emotions. So once your child is tantrumming, simply accept the emotions and communicate safety so your child can show you all those feelings. The fewer words the better, just enough so she hears your compassion and knows you're ready with a hug. Empathy won't stop the tantrum, but it will help your child let all those feelings up and out. That's what's healing.

3. "I keep repeating 'You are very sad and frustrated' but they get mad and tell me not to say it."

How we acknowledge feelings depends on how old the other person is. With an angry toddler, you might get down on his level and say "You're so mad!"  in a voice that makes it clear we understand how passionately he feels. The toddler is often reassured: Mom doesn't think it's an emergency; there's even a name for this tidal wave that's swamping him.

But as kids get older, naming the emotion makes them feel analyzed and managed, not understood. Imagine if you were upset and your partner just kept repeating "You are very sad and frustrated!" It would probably make you angrier.

Your goal here is for your child to feel understood. So use a tone of voice that matches how he feels. Labeling the emotion is fine if that helps him feel understood, but otherwise, there's no reason to do it. (I know, you've been advised to "name it to tame it." But the research supporting that is about the person who feels the emotion doing the naming. When someone else names what they think you're feeling, it often triggers resistance.)

"Oh, Ian... I hear how much you want it....You really wished we could do this, didn't you?"

"That's so disappointing!"

As kids grow, a simple "I'm sorry it's so hard, my love" or even just "Mmmm.... Oh, no.....My goodness!" will get your empathy across.

And of course, while your child is in the middle of a tantrum, the only thing they need to know is that they're safe, that you understand, and you're ready with a hug when they're ready.

4. "I empathize with the emotions, but then she's still upset about it."

If you're truly empathizing, you feel some of what your child is feeling. One test of this is whether you have tears in your eyes. If you can see it from her perspective and feel that deep level of empathy, your child will feel cared about and understood. Often, that's enough to help her begin to move through her emotions.

If it doesn't, that's because empathy by itself doesn't necessarily address what your child is upset about. Often we need to go a step further, and help her solve the problem.

"You're so upset that your little sister keeps knocking down your tower. Let's find a place for you to build that is out of her reach."

Sometimes the child needs our support to solve the problem:

"You're so mad at your brother. I think he needs to hear how you feel. Let's go find your brother, and I will stay with you while you tell him."

And sometimes he simply can't have what he wants, but you can give him what he wants with a wish:

"Do you want me to write this here on your birthday list so when it comes time you can see if you still want it?"

Sometimes, though, wish fulfillment isn't enough and there's no solving the problem. The disappointment is so great -- or it triggers some earlier hurt that's still lurking and waiting to be expressed -- that only tears will do. In that case, the empathy "worked" so your child felt safe enough to show you his upset. That's how kids build resilience -- they feel safe enough with you to let themselves feel their disappointment fully -- and they learn they can come out on the other side feeling ok. He's crying? That's a GOOD thing.

5. "I say 'You are mad but we don't hit' and he hits again ten minutes later."

Often when we use the word "but" the other person doesn't feel their feelings are actually being acknowledged. (There's an old saying: "Everything before the 'but' is a lie.")

You might see if there's a difference when you say "You're feeling really mad, aren't you? I understand! AND it's not okay to hit, no matter what. Tell me in words." Of course, your tone has to make it clear that you really do understand how upset she is.

But the big reason that empathic reminders don't prevent more hitting is that you simply can't expect "talk" of any kind to solve the problem. Kids who hit have big fear locked inside. They need you to create safety and set a compassionate limit so they can cry and show you that fear. Only then does hitting usually stop. (Want more pointers on how to help kids with big emotions? Here's a whole post for you.)


In fact, if you're truly feeling the empathy, it will ALWAYS work to help your child feel understood. (Sometimes that means the emotions come gushing out, which is ultimately healing.) So if your empathy doesn't seem to be "working," maybe words are getting in your way. Stop trying to come up with the right words. Instead, imagine yourself as a child feeling what your son or daughter is feeling at this moment. What do you wish your parent would do right now to love you through this?  Do that.


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For more on empathy:

Empathy: Foundation of emotional health


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