What to say to Empathise Better with Your Child

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 your 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 recognise 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 emphasises 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. 

Originally published here

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Princeton, NJ. She is an author of many books about children’s feelings and friendships, including Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends and Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Heidi

    Hi Natural parent mag!
    My daughters photo is in this article and I was just wondering if it’s in the magazine? I’d love to get one if so! Also she has been made and raised on a island the most natural it can get so if you would like more info let me know thankyou for the opportunity for her photo to be in something so special!

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *