What does it mean to show empathy for kids? Read these tips on understanding what children are feeling and how to respond with empathy.
Last night, my six-year-old thought I didn’t care about him. And all because of wooden blocks.
I opened our box of wooden blocks for my three boys to dig into. By the time they separated their stash, he had way more than the other two. In an attempt to be fair, I counted all the blocks and divided them equally among all three. And that meant taking a few blocks away from him.
He started to pout and cry. It’s just a bunch of blocks, I tried to convince him. You had way more than them.
The crying didn’t stop, and I had to take a break in another room. It doesn’t get better: When he followed me, I left to go to another room.
Only until he cried, “You don’t care about me” did I realize how foolish I’d been behaving.
Think to the last time your child cried, misbehaved, or otherwise made you upset. Maybe he didn’t want to put his shoes on when you were already late. Or he was whining because he didn’t want to get out of bed. Maybe he even hit his sister or demolished her tower of blocks.
And with each situation, tensions seemed to spiral down with no end.
Wouldn’t it be nice to remove the power struggle and frustration in each case? We can, when we show empathy.
The power of empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and even share what other people must be feeling. Not only is it an essential skill for your child to learn, it’s also an important parenting tool you can apply.
Empathy makes us more understanding and patient. It’s easier to lose your temper when all you see is a child who hit his sister.
But when you imagine how he must be feeling, you might notice it’s because his sister grabbed a toy out of his hand. You’re able to connect and show him you understand why he must’ve done what he did.
Not that it was the right thing to do. Empathy isn’t about letting kids get away because you understand their motives weren’t wrong. Just because your child felt slighted by his sister doesn’t mean he should hit her anytime he does.
But it removes the power struggles between the two of you as it becomes a team effort. It’s not mom on one side and child on the other. Instead, it’s both mom and child figuring out how to cope with his frustration and behave in a better way.
How to show empathy for kids
Even if you think you react or get upset too quickly, you can still show empathy. It’s never too late. After I realized my mistake with my son over the wooden blocks, I apologized. I had hurt his feelings, but I knew I could still connect with him.
How? By asking myself these three questions. Try it the next time your child needs more empathy:
#1: “Why is my child behaving this way?”
The first step is to stop reacting to our kids and instead respond. Think about the last time your child misbehaved. If you react, you’ll likely get upset, lose your patience or yell.
But if we pause and respond, we’re able to keep our cool and be more attuned to our kids. So much so that we can ask ourselves why they’re behaving this way in the first place.
When all we see is a child not doing what he’s supposed to do, it’s easy to lash out and get everyone even more upset. But if we ask why, we can understand his motives.
For instance, you might see your child was in the middle of solving a puzzle when you asked him to put on his shoes. Understanding the reason helps us better connect with our kids than assuming they weren’t listening.
#2: “What must my child be feeling?”
Understanding why our kids did what they did was the first step. The next is to see what they must be feeling.
In doing so, we might realize, He didn’t like when I interrupted his puzzle so suddenly. He was probably concentrating hard and enjoying the game. It must’ve been difficult to transition out of that activity.
Only in examining what our kids must be feeling can we then put ourselves in their shoes. We wouldn’t like it much either if we were enjoying an activity and someone told us to stop and do something else. We’d feel hurt that our feelings weren’t acknowledged and our hard work ignored.
The same is true for our kids.
Only when I asked what my son must’ve been feeling was I able to show empathy. I realized he didn’t like his grand plans to build with wooden blocks thrown off. I also saw it doesn’t feel good to have to give up your items, even for fair purposes.
The beauty of showing empathy? It connects us. We realize we’re not so different from one another. That we may even act in a similar way had it been us.
And it allows parents to communicate in ways that show more understanding and patience. We can reach them using words they can relate to and feelings they understand.
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#3: “What can I do to show my child I understand?”
The first two questions above are all internal—insights that happen within us. Now it’s time to communicate with our kids and show them we understand what they must be feeling.
Often the first step to show empathy is through body language. A child might be crying too loudly to even hear any words we say. And besides, body language is universal and more understandable than words.
Ask yourself what your child needs from you right now. Maybe it’s a hug, a kiss or a tight embrace to show him you’re here. It could be a facial expression that shows you’re sorry and will do better next time. He might even need space and a few minutes alone.
Then think about how to communicate and show empathy through words. A sample approach might be to:
- Acknowledge his motives: “You were playing with that toy and having fun, weren’t you? You must have felt so upset when your sister grabbed it out of your hands.”
- Say the rule: “We don’t hit other people, though.”
- Explain why: “Hitting hurts other people, and there are better ways to say you’re mad.”
- Show a better alternative: “Next time she gets you mad, tell her, ‘I’m mad!’ Or tell her it’s still your turn.”
Imagine how different that conversation would be if we left out the first step—empathy. Kids would only hear rules, reasons and alternatives, all while we ignore their emotions.
But when we include that crucial first step, they soften. They might cry less and relax their shoulders, all because they felt heard and understood.
Empathy is such a crucial skill for everyone to practice. We need empathy not just to raise kids but to interact with other adults. Children need empathy to get along with others. It makes interacting with kids easier and models a critical skill they can learn.
I might’ve remained upset and impatient with my son had I not practiced empathy. It’s just wooden blocks, I might’ve justified to myself.
But I would’ve lost an opportunity to relate to his feelings. He’d have no chance to feel heard and understood.
And he wouldn’t have felt reassured that I do care about him—very much—even if he cries over a set of wooden blocks.
Get more tips:
- 5 Easy Tips for Kids to Learn Empathy
- Tell Your Kids You Love Them, Even when It’s Hard To
- Set Boundaries — Kids Actually Want Them
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- Nobody’s Perfect, Including Our Kids
Tell me in the comments: How does showing empathy toward your child compare to the times when you reacted instead?
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