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Applying Empathy in Your Relationship with Your Child

Gary Gilles, LCPC

You can assume that your child wants and needs to emotionally connect with you on a regular basis. That is a developmental fact based upon solid research. Children need to feel understood and empathy is your most potent way of making that emotional connection with him.

father and young sonListen for the emotion

As a starting point, you want to begin listening for the emotion in your child's interaction with you. It's not always easy to pinpoint because we tend to focus on the content of a conversation instead of the emotion. But, if you think about it, the feeling behind the words is usually at the heart of what we want others to really understand.

To illustrate this point, let's listen in on a conversation between 12-year-old Joey and his mom talking about a situation at school.

Joey: I can't wait until school is out for summer break. I especially can't wait until social studies is over.

Mom: Why? What's so bad about social studies?

Joey: Mrs. Johnson is a terrible teacher. I don't think she likes me.

Mom: Did something happen in class that makes you think she doesn't like you?

Joey: She called on me three times this week to come up to the board and write out my homework answers and every time they were wrong. She just doesn't understand that I hate social studies.

The next question most parents would ask would be: "Why do you hate social studies so much?" It's a logical question. But it takes you in a direction that you don't want to go; at least not yet. You don't want to gather data at this point. Instead you want to know more about the emotion behind the data. This is where Joey is most concerned: with the feelings he is experiencing. Let's see why.

Listening with an "emotional ear"

When you listen with an "emotional ear" you are simply tuning into the emotional frequency of the conversation. It doesn't mean you ignore the facts, but rather that you first attend to the emotion lurking in the background and try to coax it out toward the front. By recognizing the emotion and affirming it you create a natural opportunity for building emotional intimacy between you and your child.

So, read back over the brief dialogue above and see if you can pull out at least one emotion that is embedded in Joey's struggle with social studies.

What might that emotion be?

Here are some options:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Disappointment
  • Embarrassment
  • Hate

Although we could make a reasonable case for more than one of the emotions, let's choose embarrassment as a starting place. At this point we don't know for certain what Joey's feeling, nor does he, but we'll take our best guess and try to make an empathic statement based upon this feeling.

Mom: "Joey, it sounds as though you felt very embarrassed about having the wrong answers and showing it in front of the entire class? Not just once but three times in one week. That must have been difficult for you."

Notice that Mom leads with the possible emotion (embarrassment) she hears behind her son's words. She connects the emotion with the situation (wrong answers in front of his peers) as a way to help better understand his feelings. She's inviting him to explore his inner life and talk about it. Joey, like most children, doesn't have the self-awareness or insight to simply say he is embarrassed. He unconsciously disguises his feelings by pointing to things outside himself as the "problem." In this case he thinks that his dislike for social studies and his insensitive teacher are the problem. But what he really wants his mom to understand is how he's feeling about this situation.

Back to the conversation.

Joey: "Yeah, I felt like a total dunce. I don't even want to go to class anymore because my friends probably think I'm an idiot."

Again, a typical parent's response at this juncture might be: "Your friends don't think that about you. Everyone gets answers wrong from time to time."

But if you went in that direction you again would be heading down a dead end. What Joey is now telling his mom is that not only did he feel embarrassed in class but he also feels poorly about himself; he perceives that he isn't as smart as the other kids in his class. Countering him with words of encouragement at this point is merely an effort to distract him from these feelings. It would be better if Joey's mom urged him to talk more about his feelings.

Mom: "I think you are very smart. But I'm not sure you believe that."

Joey: "I do my homework and usually get it right. But I get shaky when I have to write my answers on the board in front of the class. I make stupid mistakes when I feel like everyone is looking at me."

Mom: "I see. So, it's not that you can't do the work but that you get nervous in front of the class. You're afraid that if you make a mistake, your friends might think poorly of you."

Joey: "Yeah. But Mrs. Johnson is always asking us to write our answers on the board. So, I hate going to social studies.

Even though there is no "solution" yet to the larger problem of how to manage his fear in class, Joey's mom now understands the real reason for his fears. She gained that understanding by using empathy; focusing on his emotion and not just gathering peripheral information. She also showed Joey that what he is feeling is important to her; important enough that she would give her full attention to him.

Using empathy effectively

Here's a helpful formula you can use to guide your use of empathic statements:

You feel (insert emotion) about/because (situation or event).

Here is an abbreviated version of how Joey's mom used this formula:

"You felt embarrassed (emotion) about having the wrong answers and showing it in front of the entire class (situation)."

Sidebar: You feel (emotion) about/because (situation or event).

When you lead with empathy it is not a guarantee that your child will respond like Joey and begin elaborating on his feelings. But you will still convey to your child that you heard the underlying emotion that is most important to them. With practice and repeated effort, your intent listening and reflection of their emotion will break through. Remember, the overall goal of empathy is to build a strong, emotionally connected relationship with you child. If you haven't been doing that deliberately, it may take time to carve a new relational path.

Empathy works with a child of any age. You simply have to modify the approach to make it appropriate for the particular age and maturity level of your child. The idea is to start with the emotion, connect it to the situation and say it in a succinct way. Then, stay focused on the emotion in an effort to get them to talk more about their feelings.

This sounds easy, right? Don't be fooled by how easy it seems. Genuine empathy is a skill that must be deliberately practiced if you are to unleash the full potency it can have in building that strong, connected relationship with you child.