How to Show Empathy to Your Young Child

Babies and Toddlers, Mommy tips, Parenting , , ,

Young kids can be dramatic.  This is not a news flash to anyone that has been around them.  Sometimes their reactions seem way over the top.  Often parents and caregivers try to distract them out of these feelings.  We try to make them happy.  It is NOT your job to make your child happy.  You are hereby released from this obligation! It is our job to teach kids how to handle their emotions, deal with the things life throws our way and empathize with their feelings and experiences.  Please remember it is not necessary to agree with the way your child is expressing that emotion to show empathy.  We do not have to share in their experience to show them that we care about how they feel.

If your child is upset because their balloon popped, they might cry and scream and throw themselves to the floor.  You, as the adult, probably understand that it is easily replaced, that it wasn't going to last forever and you have experiences with balloons and can probably predict that certain things will cause it to pop.  For your child, this is a HUGE deal.  A treasured item has been destroyed. It's gone. BAM! Just like that, it's gone! Imagine that this is an item that you really enjoy or love and suddenly it's gone. DESTROYED! How would you feel?  Pretty bad, huh?  Your child feels the same way.  You don't have to distract them out of being sad.

If you had a really bad day and you call up your friend or significant other and tell them how bad your day was and their response went something like this: “Oh, hey, did you want a piece of candy?” You might say something like, “Um, not really, a piece of candy is not going to make this bad day go away.” BUT, if they said, “Wow, that must have been awful for you!” You would feel heard and understood.  You wouldn't have to keep trying to convince your friend exactly how bad your day actually was.

With your child, you need to start when they are not experiencing intense emotions. Start making “feeling” faces with them and label the feelings.  Make a happy face with your child in front of a mirror. Tell your child “This is a happy face.” Then do the same with a sad face, angry face, surprised etc.  Also, talk about how your body feels with experiencing certain emotions.  For example, when you're angry your face might feel hot or your hands feel tight.  Help your child understand their emotions.

When your child is genuinely experiencing intense emotions label the emotion and say what you see.  “You are angry! You are so angry you are screaming!” You don't need to say much more.  Depending on the age of your child, they may say “I am angry!” or they may just run to you for comfort.  If they are starting to calm down you can share something that makes you angry or how you may feel angry too if that happened to you. Do your best to stay calm and share your calm with your child.  If you can hold your child close to your heart and you can keep your heart rate low it will have a calming effect on your child, their heart will start to slow down.  If you can take deep breaths your child will start to take deep breaths to match yours.  It sounds really easy, but it can be difficult to stay calm when your child is intensely upset.  Do your best, but if you find yourself getting agitated or more upset, if you can safely step away from your child, then do so and calm down.  Deep breaths really do trigger your body to calm down.

Having tantrums is actually an important part of development.  It is the release of emotion.  Kids may need to learn safe ways of expressing their emotions but it is not necessary to stop them from expressing them.  “Crying is not the hurt, but the process of becoming unhurt,” explains Deborah MacNamara, Ph.D., a parent educator and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One).  Many times children recover from their tantrums and move one.  It's not uncommon for kids to change emotions quickly.  Other kids may really struggle with getting over an emotional hurt.  If your child really overreacts often, (more than same-aged peers), please talk to your child's doctor. It could be a sign of Sensory Processing Disorder or some sensory processing issues. (We all have some!!)  Some kids need more help to cope with their emotions.  It is so important to be there for them and be their safe place.

Sometimes primary caregivers get the brunt of emotions.  Sometimes a child will only have tantrums for their closest adult.  If you are lucky enough to be the only one they have tantrums for, please remember that you are not doing something wrong.  They just feel safe enough with you to release all of those emotions.  They all need a safe place.  Try to remember how lucky you are in the middle of the next tantrum!

3 thoughts on “How to Show Empathy to Your Young Child

    1. Thanks! It’s so much easier said than done! We just have to do our best and forgive ourselves when we are less than our best. We are all only human! 🙂

  1. I wish I had read this years ago! My kids are getting older and I’m having to learn how to do this now. For me, letting go of the belief that I always had to make things better for them was the hardest step. Thanks for writing! 🙂

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