I’m sure you have had moments when your child has sobbed and heaved as if Halloween, Christmas, and their birthday had been abolished, replaced by endless amounts of chores, tasks, and unwanted adult-related errands. With preschoolers, this is a very normal response to “ It is time for dinner. Can you put your crayons away?”
When our children react like this many times we are thinking to ourselves,” Are you kidding me? Are you a lunatic? We do this three times a week! Enough with the hysterics. Go sob in your room so I can make dinner in peace. Now!!” And many times that is exactly what comes out of parents’ mouths because they really don’t know what to do or say in those moments. They know there is probably something else or a better way, but they just cannot think of it.
Every time a child has an emotional outburst, we as parents have a choice. We can either fuel the power struggle by asserting control, or we can avoid it altogether by using empathy. Going the empathy route — “Yeah, it’s really disappointing when you have to put your crayons away” — takes patience and practice, especially if you strive to make it your default response.
But the payoff is huge: your children will feel heard and respected and, in turn, cooperate more readily. Over time, as responding with empathy becomes a habit, you’ll enjoy a more peaceful household and forge a closer bond with your children.
Here’s what to say — and what not to say — in those charged, critical moments that set the tone for your parenting.
Critical Moment: Your Child Resists a Request You Just Made.
Your child has spent hours playing with Legos on the living-room floor. Now it’s bedtime, and you’ve asked him to clean up. “NO!” he retorts. “Why do I have to do it now? I’ll do it tomorrow.”
What not to say: “Because I said so!”
The empathetic response: “It’s so hard when. . .”
“Because I said so” tells a child: I don’t respect your feelings — I’m dismissing you. It’s just inviting pushback.
Once you start down that path, your child will simply ignore whatever else you say. Be mindful of what comes out of your mouth first. It’s hard to backpedal out of ‘because I said so.’
Instead, try: “Yeah, it’s a hassle when you have to clean up your toys.”
Nothing (short of a threat or a bribe) will magically inspire a reluctant child to clean a room, but if you respond with compassion out of the gate, you dramatically increase the odds of getting order restored to your living room. Responding with empathy doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. You can set a limit while at the same time inviting cooperation. It’s possible to be both kind and firm.
For example, follow your empathetic statement with a choice: “You’re welcome to put your Legos in your toy bin, or I’ll put them away in a box for a few days, and we can try again when you’re responsible for your own belongings.” You needn’t launch into a negotiation or lengthy explanation on the virtues of a tidy home. Simply offer your choice and move on.
Critical Moment: Your Child Throws a Fit Over a Disappointment You Perceive as Minor.
A planned restaurant outing falls through, prompting a meltdown: “But you SAID we were going to a restaurant tonight! You lied! That’s not fair!”
What not to say: “Too bad. Stuff happens” or “Get over it — it’s not the end of the world!”
The empathetic response: “It’s such a bummer” or “It’s so sad when plans fall through.”
To adults, a change of plans is nothing, but in a child’s mind, it can be a huge disappointment, and acknowledging your child’s frustration is important. Your child may not be placated by your display of empathy, but she’ll at least feel heard. The goal isn’t to stop her from feeling a certain way but to stop an escalation.
Try following your empathetic opening statement with a nod to the future: “We’ll go to a restaurant soon, and maybe you can help pick it out. If you got to choose your favorite restaurant, what would it be?” Sometimes meeting their needs or desires in fantasy can be enough for them to feel understood and help them move through the disappointment with more ease.
Critical Moment: Your Child is Sobbing Uncontrollably Over a Minor Injury.
Your child skins his knee at the park and wails as though he needs to be carted off in a stretcher or taken to the hospital immediately.
What not to say: “You’re fine — you’re not even bleeding!” or “You’re okay — just walk it off.”
The empathetic response: “Uh oh, what happened?”
Many parents believe that if you tell children, ‘You’re fine,’ they’ll accept what you say and move on. But what we’re telling kids is, “it’s not OK to feel what you’re feeling.” When you dismiss children’s pain and emotions, they’ll escalate those emotions to show you how mad they are for being dismissed.
Worse, you risk long-term damage to your relationship. The problem with telling a child to ‘man up’ is that later on, when something really bad does happen, like when they get beaten up or bullied, they’re not going to share it with you because you’ve told them their feelings aren’t valid. By contrast, if you simply acknowledge their pain and let them have a good cry, they’re likely to recover from the incident sooner. And when the stakes are higher, you’ll be the one they come to for help.
When you have young kids, moments of big emotions happen so often that each one hardly seems critical. But your response to each episode matters. By consistently showing empathy, rather than asserting control, you pave the way for a healthier, closer relationship with your child in the long run.
Do you want these tips at your fingertips when you need them the most?
In the comments section share a common challenge when you think empathy would be helpful and what your empathetic statement sounds like: