What to Say to Empathize Better With Your Child

Reflect your child’s feelings to show empathy, soothe, and connect.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

Steven Depolo/Flickr
Source: Steven Depolo/Flickr

When our children are upset, we adults tend to want to skip the feelings and go straight to the solution. Sometimes this works. If your child is sad about dropping her ice cream cone, just saying, “I’ll get you another one” can make everything all better. 

But when emotions are more intense or more complicated, children have trouble even considering solutions until they feel heard. Talking about emotions helps children learn about their own and other people’s internal experiences. Wrapping big, messy emotions up in words makes them seem more understandable and therefore more manageable. Also, when children don’t feel heard, they tend to get louder.

Expressing Empathy Through Reflection

Reflection is a way of expressing empathy that involves describing the feelings you see. It’s like holding up a mirror to your child to acknowledge, “What you’re feeling matters. I’m paying attention. I’m interested, and I care.” Here are some phrases you may want to try.

1) The gentle inquiry.

“You seem [sad, grumpy, worried…]. What’s going on?

Use this phrase to open a conversation when you’re sensing something is off with your child but you’re not sure what. Choose your moment wisely. You may need to do this when you’re not rushing anywhere or when there are no siblings around. Some kids respond best with physical contact. Sit down next to your child. Maybe stroke your child’s hair or back. Some children respond best in more neutral circumstances. You could ask while you’re walking, driving or doing chores together. 

2) The label and acknowledge.

“You’re feeling [happy, guilty, annoyed…] because [event or circumstance].

This one is your go-to phrase. It labels your child’s emotion and connects it to whatever is going on. Use your child’s comments, body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, plus your own ability to imagine yourself in your child’s shoes, to describe what your child is feeling and why. Sometimes parents are afraid that they might say the wrong emotion. Don’t worry; your child will correct you: “I’m not angry. I’m mad!” OK, fine. Your child is still doing the important work of wrapping feelings in words.

3) The cautious guess.

“It sounds like you’re feeling [angry, hurt, embarrassed…] about [event or circumstance].

With some children, especially teens, it pays to be tentative when reflecting feelings. Saying, “It sounds like…” or “It seems like…” acknowledges that your child is the expert on his own emotions.

4) The exclamation.

“How [exciting, frustrating, disappointing…]

This is a useful phrase for acknowledging intense emotions. Use your own tone of voice and body language to convey that you’re right there, clearly and emphatically aware of child’s emotion. 

5) The general paraphrase.

“It bothers you that [event or circumstance].” 
“It’s hard for you when
[event or circumstance].”

For kids who are squirmy about talking directly about emotions, these subtler ways of echoing their experience can be helpful ways to ease them into a conversation about a difficult topic. Although they don’t explicitly label feelings, they do more generally recognize stress or difficulties, so children feel less alone with their struggles.

6) The implied ideal.

“You wish…”

This phrase steps beyond the current facts to speak to longing. It’s a gentle way of acknowledging your child’s hopes, intentions, or regrets. You may not be able to fix things for your child, but you can show you recognize how your child wishes things were. 

Once you get the hang of it, reflecting your child’s feelings isn’t hard to do. Some of us have even made a career out of doing this because it works! Your child won’t say, “Why yes, what an insightful observation!” but you’re likely to see a softening in your child’s face or body or to hear a “Yeah” of agreement. You may need to use several of these phrases before you get there. That’s okay. Don’t move on to problem-solving until you see or hear the softening that shows your child feels heard.

How you say the reflection is more important than exactly what you say. Your goal is to express genuine caring. A distracted, impatient, or sarcastic tone of voice won't convey empathy.

Sometimes it can be helpful to add a qualifier such as "right now," "today," or "in that situation" to your reflection about negative emotions. This emphasizes for your child that emotions change, so she won't always feel this way. 

One final caution: Business people are often trained to say, “I understand you feel…” This phrase doesn’t work with kids because it shifts the attention to “I” the adult rather than “you, the child, who wants and needs to feel heard.” Also, if you’ve ever had someone say, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” when that person absolutely didn’t, you know how annoying it is to be dismissed and talked over in this way. Although children sometimes appreciate hearing stories of their parents’ childhood struggles, jumping too quickly to those can leave your child feeling misunderstood or even shoved aside. Use the word “you” and avoid “I” to keep the focus of your empathic comments on your child. 

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