What does it mean to have empathy for kids? Discover ways to understand what children are feeling and how to show empathy to a child.
My then-six-year-old thought I didn’t care about him—and all because of wooden blocks.
I opened a 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 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 didn’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 about the last time your child cried, misbehaved, or otherwise made you upset. Maybe she didn’t want to put her shoes on when you were already late, or she was whining because she didn’t want to get out of bed. She even hit her sister or demolished his 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.
Why every parent needs to show 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 you more understanding and patient.
It’s easier to lose your temper when all you see is a child who hit her sister. But when you imagine how she must be feeling, you notice it’s because her sister grabbed a toy out of her hand. You’re able to connect and show her you understand why she must’ve done what she did.
Not that it was the right thing to do. Empathy isn’t about letting her get away with things because you understand her motives weren’t wrong. Just because she felt slighted by her sister doesn’t mean she should hit her anytime she 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 her frustration and behave in a better way.
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How to show empathy to a child
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 your child and instead respond. Think about the last time she misbehaved. If you react, you’ll likely get upset, lose your patience, or yell.
But if you pause and respond, you’re able to keep your cool and be more attuned to her. So much so that you can ask yourself why she’s behaving this way in the first place.
When all you see is a child not doing what she’s supposed to do, it’s easy to lash out and get everyone even more upset. But if you ask why, you can understand her motives.
For instance, you might see she was in the middle of solving a puzzle when you asked her to put on her shoes. Understanding the reason helps you better connect with her than assuming she wasn’t listening.
2. “What must my child be feeling?”
Understanding why your child did what she did was the first step. The next is to see what she must be feeling.
In doing so, you realize, She didn’t like when I interrupted her puzzle so suddenly. She was probably concentrating hard and enjoying the game. It must’ve been difficult to transition out of that activity.
Only in examining what she must be feeling can you then put yourself in her shoes. You wouldn’t like it either if you were enjoying an activity and someone told you to stop and do something else. You’d feel hurt that your feelings weren’t acknowledged and your 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 that it didn’t feel good to have to give up your items, even for fair purposes.
The beauty of showing empathy? It connects you and your child. You realize you’re not so different from each other. That you may even act in a similar way had it been you in her shoes.
And it allows you to communicate in ways that show more understanding and patience. You can reach her using words she can relate to and feelings she understands.
3. “What can I do to show my child I understand?”
The first two questions above are all internal—insights that happen within you. Now it’s time to communicate with your child and show her that you understand what she must be feeling.
Often the first step to show empathy is through body language. She might be crying too loudly to even hear any words you say. And besides, body language is universal and more understandable than words.
Ask yourself what she needs from you right now. Maybe it’s a hug, a kiss, or a tight embrace to show her you’re here. It could be a facial expression that shows you’re sorry and will do better next time. She 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 her 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 you left out the first step—empathy. She would only hear the rules, reasons, and alternatives, all while you don’t mention her emotions.
But when you include that crucial first step, she softens. She might cry less and relax her shoulders, all because she 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 only wooden blocks, I could’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
- How to Handle Children’s Social Conflicts
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab The Power of Empathy below—at no cost to you: