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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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