Here are nine ways to respond with empathy when your child is struggling.
1. Use the “Platinum Rule,” not the “Golden Rule.”
You’ve probably learned the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you’d like them to treat you. But empathy relies on the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want (and need) to be treated.
Doing that doesn’t mean you’re giving in when your child misbehaves or wants something. It also doesn’t mean you’re being overprotective. It means you’re taking your child’s feelings and challenges into account when you try to help. It puts the focus on understanding what kids really need from you — instead of what you’d need if you were struggling.
2. Don’t just assume. Ask.
Kids often give nonverbal cues about how they’re feeling or what they’re struggling with. It’s important to be sensitive to those cues. But it’s just as important to ask about what your child is feeling and needs. Giving kids a chance to talk and explain their point of view helps them feel heard. It also gets them involved in finding solutions.
3. Set aside frustrations and judgment.
Whether your child is having a tantrum or telling you about a tough situation at school, you’re going to have your own reaction. Responding with empathy means putting that aside and letting your child’s reaction come first.
That doesn’t mean you have to bury your feelings. It also doesn’t mean you have to agree with your child or accept bad behavior. It just means you’re hearing kids out and trying to see things through their eyes.
4. Use “I” statements.
“You” statements can make kids feel defensive and not want to listen. “I” statements let you talk about situations without placing blame.
For example, you might be tempted to say, “You’re yelling and not listening to a word I’m saying.” But an “I“ statement is more empathetic: “I know you’re upset. But when you yell and talk over me, I feel like you aren’t hearing what I’m saying.”
5. Don’t jump into fix-it mode.
Lots of parents and caregivers are wired to jump right into fix-it mode when something is wrong. While that might make you feel better, it doesn’t always help kids feel better. Try to just listen and understand what’s wrong.
Your child might not even want you to fix a problem. That’s something you can talk about after you hear your child out.
6. Take a time-out.
It’s hard to keep your cool when kids take their frustration out on you. It’s OK to tell your child that you need to step away.
You can say something like, “I’m finding it hard not to yell and it seems like you are, too. I think we both need to take some time to cool down. I’m going to step away, but I’ll be back when I’m calmer and better able to listen.” (By doing this, you’re also modeling self-control and self-awareness.)
7. Ask open-ended questions.
An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered in one word or phrase. Using them is empathetic because it lets kids say what’s on their mind without feeling like you’ve already sized up the situation.
For example, asking “What about today was hard for you?” invites more conversation than “Did you have a rough day?” It also helps you explore the problem — and solutions — in more depth.
8. Actively listen.
Empathy requires active listening. That means giving your full attention and listening to the words and tone of voice. When you actively listen, you think through and state in your own words what you think your child has said.
After your child shares something, ask, “Is this what you’re telling me?” Then repeat what you think you heard. That gives kids an opening to correct misunderstandings. It also shows respect for their feelings and perspective.
9. Validate your child’s feelings.
When you empathize, you show kids that they have the right to feel the way they feel. You may not agree with your child’s choices. You may even think your child is overreacting. But it’s important to recognize that your child’s feelings are real. You may not be OK with something your child did or said, but feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong.”
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Donald Deshler, PhD is a professor in the school of education. He is the former director of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KUCRL).