Empathy: A Magic Wand to connect with Complex Kids & Teens


  • “What is Empathy? And why is it VERY different from sympathy? Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” Brene Brown

When we are connected with our kids, we can engage with them, teach them, support them, empower them, and ultimately guide them to independence and success. It takes time, but as long as we’re connected, we can help them reach their potential.

When we are disconnected, they tune us out – shutting the door (if not slamming it in our faces) to our ability to guide them effectively. When they stop listening, we end up hitting our heads against that door, frustrated, scared, and clueless as to how to get them to open up.

So if there is one single message I discuss with the parents in our programs, more frequently than ANYthing else, it’s how to stay connected with your kids.

The secret sauce to parenting complex kids – any kids, really — is to remember that our relationship with them should be our primary focus. That doesn’t mean “being their best friend,” “giving them everything they want,” or “not teaching them to be responsible.”

It means maintaining a respectful, healthy relationship that is open and trusting. And all too often, it’s easier said than done.

Formula for Staying Connected

There’s a little formula we teach parents that helps us connect and reconnect to our kids.

Acknowledgment + Compassion = Connection

We recently encountered a lovely video, narrated by the brilliant Brene Brown, called, “The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy.” As I was watching, it occured to me that the reason our formula works so well is that it gives parents a roadmap to be empathetic with our kids.

Watch the 3 minute video and you’ll see what I mean. In this video, Brown explains that, through extensive research, Teresa Wiseman has identified 4 qualities of Empathy. And remember, that’s what “drives connection” with our kids.

  1. Perspective Taking
  2. Staying out of Judgment
  3. Recognizing Emotion in other People
  4. Communicating that Emotion

Acknowledgment + Compassion

Here’s how it might work in real life.

Let’s say your child is not following directions to go take a shower, and you’re starting to get frustrated that you are giving the same direction again and again. What role can empathy play in helping you stay connected – and ultimately, getting your child into that shower?

Here’s how the two steps can help:

  • Step 1: Acknowledgment: “I know you’re in the middle of playing a video game, and you don’t really want to stop. It’s frustrating to have to go do something boring, when video games are so much more fun!”
  • Step 2: Compassion: “I hate it when I have to stop doing something fun, just to do something I “have” to do! I know you might not believe this, but there was a time when I could play video games for hours, too – though in those days, they weren’t as hard as the ones you’re playing! I bet it’s especially hard to stop when you are doing so well!”
At this point, you can direct or re-direct, make a request or a suggestion, and you’re likely to get a cooperative response.

  • “So, you know, kiddo, it’s time for a shower, and bed-time is fast-approaching. I know it’s hard to stop — how about if we read your favorite book before bed?” or
  • “So, you know, kid, it’s time for a shower. How about if I give you 2 more minutes, and then I’d like you to stop right away, even if you’re in the middle of something? Does that sound fair to you? I know it’s hard to stop – and I really appreciate you making the effort. You can tell me about how well you were doing when we stop, okay?”

The two steps, Acknowledgment + Compassion, actually taking into consideration all 4 aspects of Empathy. By doing them, you shift your perspective from annoyed to understanding, and also consider your child’s perspective, without judgment. You show understanding for your child’s potential emotions, help identify them for your child, and express your understanding.

Voila! You’ve “empathized” with your child’s upset, and offered solutions.

So…. the next time you find yourself irritated or annoyed, take a deep breath, and try this little formula.

  • Oh, and one more thing. It might not work perfectly the first time. I know that can be really frustrating. It’s really hard for me, too, when my kids don’t respond “first time, every time,” which was the (unreasonable) expectation we had when they were little. Still, I’m confident it will work if you practice it a few times, because I’ve seen it work for SO many of the parents I work with. AND… it will do a lot to keep you connected with your child.

Ultimately, isn’t that why you had kids in the first place? Yeah… me, too!

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