One of our children's deepest needs is to feel heard, and by listening carefully and expressing empathy, parents can help fill this need.
More importantly, research has found that if someone feels empathy, even if it's just from watching a touching video, it can make them feel more connected to — and generous toward — others. In other words, practicing empathy with your kids can help them grow up to be emotionally intelligent adults.
This might not seem hard, but it is. If our kids aren't doing well, parents often feel the need to be disapproving — otherwise, they reason, the kid will think they're okay with the behavior.
Also, when kids are upset, their distress induces what's called a "righting reflex" in parents, or the desire to fix whatever the problem is for the child by using logic. But logic doesn't calm emotions — empathy and validation do.
Based on our 60 years of combined experience working with parents and their kids, here are some of the most effective ways to teach children empathy:
1. Stay calm and think of their emotions as an opportunity to connect
Consider the bonds that develop when people share stressful experiences. It's not like you have to jump for joy when your kid is having a meltdown, is grumpy or is having a hard time in their life.
But when you stay calm and reframe big feelings as an opportunity, it's easier to exercise patience and compassion. If you can stay calm as they vent, cry or yell, you can lower their emotional charge, which enables both of you to think logically and clearly and put things into perspective.
No meaningful communication happens when one person is hot-tempered. Meet their intensity with your presence, and don't get upset yourself.
2. Understand and accept rather than judge
When kids are upset, parents often have subtitles running through their heads, telling them to use the opportunity as a teaching moment. But turn those subtitles off.
The experts who have long guided our perspective on this are Ross Greene, a child psychologist who says, "Children do well when they can," and Barry Kaufman, a psychotherapist who makes the same point, that "people are always doing the best they can."
Take the generous position that even though your child is in distress, the distress represents their best effort right now — and that's okay. Every misstep doesn't have to be a teaching moment. From this position of grace, you can then peel back the layers to investigate what might be going on with them.
3. Reflect and validate their feelings
Careful listening helps kids feel heard, and several experts have pointed out that kids listen better after they are heard.
When they feel understood — and, more importantly, accepted — by their parents, it helps them to see their parents as the safe base they can come to, rather than run from, at times of stress.
Language that communicates careful listening when kids have strong emotions is similar to paraphrasing, but in a way that signals we are trying to understand their feelings.
Psychologist and communication expert Eran Magen uses the helpful acronym WIG, or "What I Got" from what you said, to describe this kind of listening.
Some examples of "WIG-ing":
- "What I got from what you said is that you feel like your friend betrayed you."
- "Am I getting this right — that the way she said it made you feel like she was trying to embarrass you?"
- "It sounds like you're pretty disappointed about your performance."
- "I think you're saying that your emotions were so strong in the moment that you freaked out."
- "Let me see if I'm understanding. Other kids were doing it, too, and you feel like your teacher singled you out, and that's not fair."
One useful tip for asking questions: Rather than asking your kid why they are upset about something, ask, "How does that upset you?" For many kids, this phrasing sounds less challenging or accusatory than asking why.
Using language that expresses validation is also helpful. It shows kids that they're not wrong to feel the way they feel, and that they are accepted and loved unconditionally.
Some examples of validating language:
- "I'd also be scared if someone much bigger than me was threatening me."
- "That sounds like it would be painful."
- "That must have been hard for you."
- "I can see why you say you had a difficult day."
- "I think most people would be upset by that, too."
4. Explore and ask questions
Once you've done the listening and validation work, your kid will feel heard and accepted. Since they no longer need to defend or justify themselves, they are more likely to admit their own role in a problem and can walk alongside you, instead of fighting you.
You can move on to a place of curiosity and ask questions to better understand their experience and explore their openness to hearing advice or even come up with ways to solve problems.
William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are the co-authors of "What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home." William is a clinical neuroscientist and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Ned is the founder of PrepMatters and author of "Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed." William and Ned have 60 years of combined experience working with parents and children.
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