Kate Roberts Ph.D.

Savvy Parenting

Empathic Parenting Versus Rescue Parenting, What's Better?

What are the differences and similarities between empathic and rescue parenting?

Posted Oct 21, 2013

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's experiences and emotions. It is the ability to share someone else's feelings.

Being an empathic parent means many things, including:

  • Having patience
  • Understanding a child's feelings and where they come from
  • Experiencing things from a child’s perspective
  • Responding to children in ways that help children, as opposed to sticking to a parent's agenda regardless of whether it is helpful
  • Taking the time to understand a child’s actions
  • Understanding first, while holding back on reacting to the situation
  • Working as a team with a child to find the best solutions to the problem
  • Sharing feelings and experiences which allows children to know that parents have strong feelings that they have survived
  • Letting go of a preconceived parental expectations and accepting a child for who they are

There is some confusion regarding the difference between making a child feel good and being empathic to a child. In today's youth sports, for example, when a sports season is finished, all the children “earn” a medal for their participation. There isn't a distinction between children — anyone who showed up at the games gets a medal. What is the problem with differentiating amongst the players and rewarding the best  players for their skills, commitment, effort, etc.? The response from many proponents of the “medal for participation” model is that only recognizing outstanding performance or excellence would “make the other children feel bad."

Being an empathic parent is not synonymous with helping children avoid disappointment and feelings of failure. Parents today are confused in that they believe that protecting their children from the struggles of everyday life is a way to make their child feel better and be more successful. These “helicopter parents,” as they have been coined, strive to “rescue” their child before they start to have bad feelings. Their premise is that they need to be involved in most aspects of their child’s life to ensure that every opportunity is had and that bad feelings and the experience of failure and rejection are avoided regardless of the cost. However, when will the bad feelings be allowed?  Research has demonstrated that allowing children to embrace disappointments and helping them learn skills to cope with negative life events allows children to develop resiliency.

Why are some parents today overly invested in preventing their children from being disappointed by experiencing life’s inevitable pitfalls? Don’t children learn from failure, the same that adult do?  

Do children need a medal at the end of the soccer season to feel valued or to avoid feelings of failure? My kids have received so many medals for participation in so many sports that by the time real awards are given out I worry that they won’t know the difference.

Is the truly empathic parent one that allows a child to fail and fall, knowing that they will help their children recover from disappointment as they grow into independent adults? What do you think?


Larzelere,Morris,et al,,2012, Authoritative Parenting, Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association



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