Empathetic Listening – How to Listen So Your Kids Will Too

Empathetic Listening - How to Listen to Kids So They'll Listen to You

Being able to respond and interact with the world whole-heartedly is fuel for flight and healthy living. A big part of this involves being aware of how we feel and how others feel, and managing those feelings to preserve relationships and satisfy needs. None of us were born knowing how to do this. It’s why the apprenticeship towards adulthood starts at the small human stage and lasts decades. So much to learn!>Empathetic listening is a powerful way to build this emotional awareness in children, open them up to your guidance and grow their emotional intelligence.

Opportunities for empathetic listening will present themselves all the time, but they won’t always present themselves gently. And certainly not always adorably. Being human is never that simple.

The opportunities will often be hidden in big feelings, tantrums, resistance, tears, tempers, frustration, anxiety, sadness, jealousy, confusion. As draining and as maddening as these situations can be, they are rich with the lessons that all kids need to learn to be healthy, capable, thriving adults. As with so much of life, the best way to learn is often in the midst of the mess. 

When your child is broken-hearted, furious, or confused, empathetic listening can help you to break through. The key lies in trying to understand what your child is experiencing. Their experiences might not always make logical sense, but they don’t need to (cue the distress at discovering there’s no Dory in Dory yoghurt). There is something more important than understanding the situation, and that’s understanding how they feel about it. This is where empathetic listening is gold. 

What is empathetic listening?

Empathetic listening involves tuning in to what your child is feeling. When you listen empathetically, the connection between you and your child will deepen, as will their budding self-awareness. 

This doesn’t mean that you’ll approve of how they’ve expressed themselves. The idea is that when they feel closer to you and more understood, your capacity to guide them and to be heard by them is expanded. The benefit is so mutual. When they feel your love, warmth and understanding, the big feelings that are breathing to life inside them will start to ease. When this happens, they’ll be open to your wisdom and your guidance, and to learning the lessons that all kids need to learn.

Okay then. Tell me how it’s done.

Here are the basic principles for empathetic listening. The aim is to understand what your child is feeling. Once your child feels heard, there is a clear way forward for dialogue and any lessons that need to be learned.

  1. Open up to all of the information that’s coming to you.

    Empathetic listening involves collecting whatever information you need to tune into your child’s experience. Use your eyes to notice their body language, gestures or facial expressions, your ears to hear their words; your imagination try to see things from where they are; and your heart – you already have a deep connection with your child and you know them child better than anyone – use your heart to get a sense of what they might be feeling. 

  2. Gently reflect back.

    Once you have the information, share it with your child, in a gentle, non-judgemental way. What your child needs more than anything is to feel heard. There is a sweet relief that will come when they realise that you ‘get’ them. 

  3. Respond to the feelings behind the words.

    Respond to the feelings behind the behaviour. When emotional things happen, it won’t help to be logical or to try to explain the unreasonableness of what they are feeling. For example, a baby brother has ‘stolen’ a very important hat – the one with Elsa on it. Now he’s putting it in his mouth, ‘like with spit and everything’. Rather than responding to the situation, ‘he won’t hurt your hat’, try responding to the feelings. ‘You’re worried he’s going to ruin your hat. I understand that. I know you’re a great sharer. What can you share with him that he can put in his mouth?’ Their actions might be messy and their words might be unhelpful, but their feelings behind them will be valid. 

  4. Name big feelings. So good for so many reasons.

    Naming an emotion can soothe the nervous system and help kids to find their way back from big feelings. For healthy functioning, the emotionally vibrant right brain and the logical, linguistic left brain need to stay connected and working together. The left brain is dominant in logic and language. It gives logical structure and meaning to the emotional experiences of the right brain. When there is an emotional tidal wave, the right side of the brain ‘disconnects’ from the left. This is when things feel out of control because for a little while, that’s exactly what happens – the big emotions that live in the right brain are out of the control of the calming, logical influence of the left brain.

    When you name what you think they might be experiencing, you are effectively ‘loaning’ your left brain by providing the words that will give structure and meaning to their feelings. ‘You really want to keep playing don’t you. You’re not ready to pack up yet. That sounds frustrating for you. I’d be frustrated too if I had to stop doing something I wanted to keep doing.’

    Think of it like turning on a light for them. When you name the feeling, it stops coming at them from the dark. They can start to get a sense of it, contain it, and start to deal with it. Naming a feeling also helps them to realise that they aren’t alone and that there are feelings that everyone experiences from time to time. 

    By naming the feeling that they might be feeling (give them space to tell you that they’re not), you’re helping to expand their emotional vocabulary. They might be ‘angry’ – or they might be frustrated, exhausted, jealous, furious. The more awareness they have of their own emotional experience, the more capacity they’ll have to identify those feelings in others. This is the heartbeat of emotional intelligence and when this flourishes, so will they. 

  5. Sometimes there will be mixed emotions – let them know that’s okay.

    Different emotions can land in the same place at the same time. For example, a child might be going on a fabulous holiday, but without one of their parents. They will likely feel super-excited, but a little sad as well, and perhaps a bit anxious or guilty about leaving the other parent behind. If you can name what you see, feel or think, and reassure them that it’s completely okay to feel different feelings at the same time – you’ll be giving them the strong, steady, loving presence they need. When they have the ‘permission’ to feel confusing feelings, they can stop fighting them. The feelings will be free to come, and then they will go.

  6. They’re doing their detective work too. Be careful with the vibes you’re sending out.

    Kids are clever. They pick up everything! While you’re trying to read them, they will also be reading you. Be careful with the information you send their way – your voice, your posture, the words you use, the distance between you. If you can (and you might not always have it in you – parents are human too), try to slow things down, position yourself so your eyes are level with theirs, and be with them in the moment. 

  7. You don’t need to fix anything.

    Feelings don’t always appear to make sense but they always have a good reason for being there. You don’t need to argue the facts or point out the reasons they ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling the way they do. You don’t need to fix anything. When they feel heard and understood, their connection with you will deepen, their big emotions will start to soothe, your influence will widen and the ‘fixing’ will take care of itself. 

And finally …

However curly their responses or behaviour might be, children never do what they do to be ‘bad’. Big feelings are overwhelming, and it takes time to learn how to manage them. Even as adults, there will likely be days where the big feelings win. 

When you listen empathetically, your child will feel heard and understood. They will feel your support and when they relax into this, they’re ready to listen to you and open up to your guidance. The best way to be heard is to listen. Their feelings don’t have to make sense to you, but it will always be something wonderful for them, if you can help their feelings make sense to them.

24 Comments

Kathryn

Gosh I need this right now! Struggling with my daughter and getting her to focus and listen so this will really help. Thank you for writing this!

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Kate

I love this idea, but I find it so hard when I am being verbally attacked by my 12 year old! As soon as I start to draw a boundary she lights into me and it is hard not to react!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Kate I hear you! Your daughter is heading into adolescence. This means that her brain is going through massive changes. One of the things that happens because of those changes is that adolescents are really quick to misinterpret your emotions. They use a different part of their brain to adults to read emotion. The part of their brain that is instinctive, impulsive, reactive and emotional has a heavy hand in reading emotion. At the beginning of adolescence, and for a few more years, this will be without the calming, rational influence of the prefrontal cortex – the part of their brain at the front that is able to calm down the instinctive response. Here is an article that will explain things a bit more for you https://www.heysigmund.com/understanding-and-avoiding-teenage-flare-ups/. Hold tight – she will get through it, but it might be bumpy for a few more years. It’s all part of the adolescent adventure – they grow and so do we. The good news is that she sounds like she’s travelling along exactly as she should be.

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Delia Rusu

I love how you say “you don’t need to fix anything”. As parents, we’re trying too hard to offer solutions and make things better quickly for them.

However many times all they need is someone to listen to what they have to share, that’s all 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Delia. We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves sometimes to make things better, but so many times they’ll tend to find their own way through when the ground is steady beneath them – which is something we can help with.

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Jolanta

Dear Hey,
beautiful article; When my son was eight, he was really naughty, unfocused and very rebellious. One day, I realised that I needed to fully focus on him and in order to change him, I wrote myself a letter on how I was going to do just that. I needed to change myself. I started to listen, respond to my son in a loving and a patient way. I gave him my complete positive attention and the maximum of my time. I became tuned to his emotions. I was surprised how quickly he responded to me. I changed things around for my son in few short weeks. He became happy, focused and well behaved. My son is 20 now and the most loving, kind and focused young man I know. I am really glad I had the insight all those years ago to focus on myself in order to give him my best.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you Jolanta for sharing this! It sounds as though you have given your son exactly what he needed to grow into a remarkable young man.

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grandma

Wonderful information! Wish I had read it when raising my own children. However, I’ll send it on to them now that they’re raising their own children.
Thanks so much!

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Mary

I love this! My son, who is now 16, was a late talker. When he was 2 years old, someone told me to just stop and listen to him whenever he started talking. So I did that, less talking & more listening. Today, he is my kid who “gets” everybody”. He has amazing empathy skills, and is able to articulate them in situations with family and friends.

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Virginia

My garandayghters are wonderful kids but the are lazy! So I won’t correct them. But…. I want them to become good and happy adults. Their rooms are scary messy and they drag their feet doing chores to the point I want to spank them! The youngest is a drama queen and seems to attract drama. So I give advice when asked. So I pray they will find their way. But it’s hard fir a grandmother.

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Hey Sigmund

Messy rooms and slow to do chores – it sounds as though your grand-daughters are very normal. It can be so frustrating though can’t it. Keep giving them gentle guidance – they’ll find their way. Sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job.

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Megan

Lat week I wrote something similar on my blog, you just happened to do it better! 🙂

I adore this website as a resource in my own parenting and in my counseling work with parents. Thank you for the quality work you produce!

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Tiffany

Thank you, this is fabulous information that will help us become the parents we wish to be. It’s funny, I do this intuitively and it just feel so good when it does and yet it’s hard to do it consistently. Now that you’ve empathetically mirrored for me what happens in those times of unconditional listening, I can visualize how to do it consistently. Thanks, my left brain wants to send you a thank you card and my right brain wants to hug you!! You’re doing a valuable thing here, please keep up the great work.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Tiffany! Loving your virtual hug and sending you one right back. It’s so great that you do empathetic listening intuitively. I know exactly what you mean though – it can be hard to remember to do it all the time can’t it! Sounds like your kiddos are in wonderful hands.

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Rob

So much great information. Am a Grandparent and am being able to see the good and the not so good aspects of my parenting as I watch my children raise their children. When up to your neck in alligators it is hard to remember the goal was to drain the swamp.

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Skeeter

This is a very helpful and insightful article. My son is keen on his emotions and we have helped him name them since he was around 3yrs. Today, he is able to articulate his feelings most of the time.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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