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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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