When parents begin using gentle guidance, they're often amazed by how well empathy "works" to calm their child. For most people, including children, just having our views and feelings acknowledged makes us feel better, so we're more cooperative. So once parents get past their fear of "agreeing" with their child's "negative emotions" -- empathy doesn't mean you agree -- they quickly learn to empathize when their child is having a hard time:

  • "Nothing's going right for you today, huh?"
  • "You wish you could have ice cream now, I hear you."
  • "I see how mad you are!"

But empathy isn't a trick to control the other person.  It's a means of connection, and of helping our child process emotion. So when empathy doesn't "work," consider whether you're really connecting, and whether you're helping your child with her emotions. In fact, empathy is so effective in reconnecting with our upset child and helping her calm down that it takes us by surprise when it "doesn't work."

Here are the five problems I hear most often from parents about "using" empathy, and how to solve them.

1. "Empathy makes my child cry harder."

Yes, when we validate kids' feelings, the emotions do usually intensify. But we aren't creating those "bad" feelings. They're inside your child anyway, driving their behavior. Think about a time when you had some big feelings locked up inside -- maybe something happened that was very upsetting. You were holding it together. Then someone arrived with whom you felt safe, and they hugged you, and you burst into tears.

So it's true that when kids have big feelings and we empathize, they do get more in touch with their feelings. But that's a good thing. Because once they feel those emotions, the emotions have delivered their message and they can evaporate. That's how emotions work.

2. "Empathy doesn't stop the tantrum."

Kids escalate when they don't feel heard. So if your empathy helps your child feel understood, that usually de-escalates a tantrum. But when it doesn't, there's a reason. Your child needs to cry and show you those big emotions before they can heal.

So once your child is tantrumming, simply accept the emotions, and communicate safety so your child can show you all those feelings. The fewer words the better, just enough so she hears your compassion and knows you're ready with a hug. Empathy won't stop the tantrum, but it WILL help your child let all those feelings up and out. That's what's healing.

3. "I keep repeating 'You are very sad and frustrated' but they get mad and tell me not to say it."

With an angry toddler, you might get down on his level and say "You're so mad!"  in a voice that makes it clear that you understand how passionately he feels. The toddler is often reassured: "My parents doesn't think it's an emergency; there's even a name for this tidal wave that's swamping me."

But as kids get older, naming the emotion makes them feel analyzed and managed, not understood. Imagine if you were upset and your partner just kept repeating "You are very sad and frustrated!" It would probably make you angrier.

You may have heard the phrase "name it to tame it." But the research supporting that is about the person who feels the emotion doing the naming. When someone else names what they think you're feeling, it can sometimes be validating -- OR, often, it can trigger resistance.

Your goal here is for your child to feel understood. So use a tone of voice that matches how he feels. Labeling the emotion is fine if that helps your child feel understood, but otherwise, there's no reason to do it. 

"Oh, Ian... I hear how much you want it....You really wished we could do this, didn't you?"

"That's so disappointing!"

As kids grow, a simple "I'm sorry it's so hard, my love" or even just "Mmmm.... Oh, no.....My goodness!" will get your empathy across.

And of course, while your child is in the middle of a tantrum, the only thing they need to know is that they're safe, that you understand, and you're there with a hug when they're ready.

4. "I empathize with the emotions, but then she's still upset about it."

If you're truly empathizing, you feel some of what your child is feeling. One test of this is whether you have tears in your eyes. If you can see it from her perspective and feel that deep level of empathy, your child will feel cared about and understood. Often, that's enough to help her begin to move through her emotions.

If it doesn't, that's because empathy by itself doesn't necessarily address what your child is upset about. Often we need to go a step further, and help her solve the problem.

"You're so upset that your little sister keeps knocking down your tower. Let's find a place for you to build that is out of her reach."

Sometimes the child needs our support to solve the problem:

"You're so mad at your brother. I think he needs to hear how you feel. Let's go find your brother, and I will stay with you while you tell him."

And sometimes he simply can't have what he wants, but you can give him what he wants with a wish:

"Do you want me to write this here on your birthday list so when it comes time you can see if you still want it?"

Sometimes, though, wish fulfillment isn't enough and there's no solving the problem. The disappointment is so great -- or it triggers some earlier hurt that's still lurking and waiting to be expressed -- that only tears will do. In that case, the empathy "worked" so your child felt safe enough to show you his upset. That's how kids build resilience -- they feel safe enough with you to let themselves feel their disappointment fully -- and they learn they can come out on the other side feeling ok. He's crying? That's a GOOD thing.

Remember, when you set a limit and your child resists it, they often have to mourn what they can't have. So your empathy is not an attempt to make your child's feelings go away. It's an acknowledgment that they're unhappy. Your empathy creates enough safety for your child to grieve and move on, but that's a process, not an instant result. 

5. "I say 'You are mad but we don't hit' and then he hits again ten minutes later.

Often when we use the word "but" the other person doesn't feel their feelings are actually being acknowledged. (There's an old saying: "Everything before the 'but' is a lie.")

You might see if there's a difference when you say "You're feeling really mad, aren't you? I understand! AND it's not okay to hit, no matter what. Tell me in words." Of course, your tone has to make it clear that you really do understand how upset your child is.

But the big reason that empathic reminders don't prevent more hitting is that you simply can't expect "talk" of any kind to solve the problem. Kids who hit have big fear locked inside. They need to feel safe, so they can begin to work through that fear. That means that your priority is strengthening the trust between you, and your acceptance of the child. Then, they need you to set a compassionate limit so they can cry and show you that fear. Only then does hitting usually stop. (Want more pointers on how to help kids with big emotions? Here's a whole post for you.)

In fact, if you're truly feeling the empathy, it will ALWAYS work to help your child feel understood. (Sometimes that means the emotions come gushing out, which is ultimately healing.)

So if your empathy doesn't seem to be "working," maybe words are getting in your way. Stop trying to come up with the right words. Instead, imagine yourself as a child feeling what your son or daughter is feeling at this moment. What do you wish your parent would do right now to love you through these emotions and help you feel understood? Do that.


See this article in Czech.

For more on empathy: Empathy: Foundation of emotional health