As a child therapist of twenty years, gaining a child’s trust is a requirement of the job. When trust exists, the child/adolescent easily opens up. Talking helps the child/adolescent because they feel understood, less alone, and connected to the person listening. Suddenly, they are amenable to reassurance, guidance, and the advice to keep trying. Empathy provides a child with security and empowers a child to forge ahead with new determination.
Often, adults are quick to try and correct a child’s feelings which immediately shuts the child down. For example, an automatic response to a child who eludes to a worry is, “don’t worry.” Yet, this instructs a child to deny what they are feeling, which may arrest the communication and impact a child’s belief in himself or herself. A more empathic response is, “that’s a big worry. I get it. I used to worry about that too when I was your age. Don’t let it stop you, honey. You got this.” Because the parent trusts and is accepting of how their child feels, the child feels understood and less alone, which fosters a sense of security. In addition, the child trusts how they feel, and is less ashamed about verbalizing feelings when they need the encouragement to stick with something difficult.
Anger is sometimes an ugly emotion when displayed by a child. Frequently, when a parent sees a flushed face and hears a sharp and raised tone, their first inclination is to send the child to their room to calm down. Yet, this communicates to a child that they should be ashamed of their anger. Suppressing anger may result in quitting, throwing a fit, aggression or pouting. Hence, it is far healthier to empathize with the anger. “You are mad. I don’t know why, but I want to know. What happened?” Often, when the child’s emotion is recognized by the parent, the child feels understood and quickly recognizes their own feeling state. A child’s ability to recognize how they feel is a prerequisite to verbalizing feelings instead of acting on them inappropriately. It is also evidence that the child has a hearty and rugged sense-of-self.
Another tough situation for a parent is when their child feels shame about how they look, and shares statements like, “I’m ugly” or “I’m fat” or “I hate the way I look.” Hearing these comments crushes a parent’s soul and can cause knee jerk responses like, “No! You are beautiful! Don’t say that!” However, these declarations are not empathic. They deny the child understanding, which makes the child feel more alone and ashamed.
Don't try to fix everything. Give young kids a chance to find their own solutions. When you lovingly acknowledge a child's minor frustrations without immediately rushing in to save her, you teach her self-reliance and resilience.
A better idea is to gently empathize, “It hurts to not like the way you look. I understand. I feel that way too sometimes.” Or “It hurts to not like what you see in the mirror. I get it, honey. I used to feel the same way when I was your age. It stings.” After the empathy, reassuring the child of their internal and external beauty validates the importance of character.
Generally, following empathy with encouragement, re-direction, reassurance, or problem solving is important. Refraining from confusing sympathy with empathy is also critical. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for a child, tempts a parent to fix the child’s problems. This may foster a victim mentality in a child. Empathy, on the other hand, never requires rules to be changed or expectations be lowered, and it prevents a parent from trying to fix their child’s problem for them. Empathy empowers kids to trust how they feel so they are secure enough to fix the problem themselves.
Trauma Touches Every Child