Dad holding child


“Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with, “At least…”

I had a miscarriage…At least you know you can get pregnant.

I think my marriage is falling apart….At least you have a marriage.

John’s getting kicked out of school….At least Sara is an A-student.

(from Dr. Brene Brown’s talk on empathy in an RSA Short

When parenting our children, what does this look like?

            (Toddler crying after falling)…At least you’re not bleeding, be a big boy.

            Beth hit me on the playground today…At least you didn’t get in trouble.

            I made a C on my math test…At least you passed.

            Rob broke up with me….At least there are other boys in your school.

Those “at least” statements can sometimes feel a little judgmental to someone who is struggling, especially children.  There is no good fit for shame and judgment in the practice of empathy and especially not when parenting with empathy.

Empathy is the driving force behind connections and relationships.  So why is that so important? The relationship a parent has with their child is the foundation for all other relationships to come in that child’s life…with their siblings, their teachers, their friends, and future partners.

We are born hardwired to need connection and will attach to those who provide for our basic needs.  When our babies cry and we pick them up, when our babies have soiled diapers and we clean them, when our children are hungry and we feed them, when they are scared in the night or fight with a friend at school and we comfort them, we are letting them know that we are safe and dependable.  In that safe place, we are building connections with our children emotionally and physically within them. Their little growing brains are primed and ready for development when they feel safe and secure.

As a parent coach and facilitator of multiple parent groups, I find one commonality between all curricula…empathy.  Whether it be teaching our children feelings and coping, following our child’s need, or nurturance and delight, empathy is omnipresent.

Babies and toddlers can have strong emotions, but they don’t yet have words to describe them.  When children get a little older, they learn what it can be like to have more than one emotion at a time.  As we talk to our children and name their feelings, whether they can even understand our words, not only are we teaching them vocabulary, we are teaching them empathy.

Kissing a boo-boo, soothing a tired and whining toddler, and being a supportive listener to teen drama all seem like minor, insignificant events in the grand scheme of things.  However, when we are meeting the needs of our children in the tiniest of moments by showing empathy (“You are really mad about having to get out of the bath.”), we let them know we are safe and can handle the hard things they face.  Then in turn, our children will feel safe coming to us in the biggest of moments (“Mom, I made a bad decision and I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be, can you come get me.”).

As adults, we may have a difficult time managing our emotions as well without the help of empathy.  It’s tough to hear someone tell us that our problem isn’t really a problem or that we need to toughen up and get over it.  Imagine that lack of empathy in the mind of a child. 

How about something like this instead?

(Toddler crying after falling)…That was a scary tumble, huh.

Beth hit me on the playground…I know that’s confusing since she’s your friend.

I made a C on my math testI see that you’re disappointed.

Rob broke up with me…I see the tears in your eyes and know you’re heartbroken.

A simple shift to empathy can strengthen a parent/child relationship, which then has the ability to build and strengthen our children’s other relationships.  And if our children know empathy and know how to practice empathy with their siblings, peers, and future partners, research shows us that they are less likely to bully others and more likely to be successful students and employees.

How can you start teaching your children about empathy at home?  Shove judgment aside and try to abandon those “at least” statements.  And best of all…show them by doing.

As a member of Pulaski County’s Safe Babies Court Team, Celeste Davis facilitates parenting groups, Managing Youth Trauma Effectively (created by ARBEST) and Circle of Security Parenting, for families affected by trauma and dependency/neglect.  She is also a Certified ABC Parent Coach. Some content for this article is taken from each curricula. For more information about parenting groups available, email [email protected]

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