How to Transform Bad Behaviour with Empathy

One of our most fundamental human needs is the need to be understood.  Children’s desire to be understood and accepted by their parents cannot be overstated.  One of teenagers most common complaints is that their parents just don’t understand them.

The ability to understand another human beings point of view and let them know that you “get it” is called empathy.  In the midst of a difficult situation, if you look for the feelings behind the bad behaviour and then meet your child’s need for emotional empathy, they will be much more able to respond in a reasonable way.

Empathising with children is therefore a hugely important parenting tool.  But it’s one that doesn’t come naturally to most parents.

We tend to find empathising with our children’s “negative” emotions most difficult.  We’re often afraid to empathise with anger or frustration because we mistakenly think that understanding our child’s emotion legitimises their angry behaviour.  We avoid empathising with sadness or disappointment in case we make it worse.

Empathising with our children’s emotions does not excuse their behaviour.  And it actually tends to make emotions dissipate rather than intensify.

Empathising with a child who is getting frustrated and building up to a tantrum, can prevent the tantrum from happening (click here to go to audio download on using empathy to prevent tantrums).  Empathising with an older child helps them deal with their difficult emotions so they don’t have to act them out in bad behaviour.

Empathy also strengthens your connection – and therefore your influence – with your children.

All in all, empathy is parenting gold.  So how do you do it?

Whenever your child starts having a difficult moment:

1)      Put your focus on your child.

2)      Listen.

3)      Respond.

I tend to move through four levels of empathic response with my children:

  • – Non-verbal – nodding, touching, holding….
  • – Mono-syllabic mumbles – hhhmmm, oh, ah….
  • – Short phrases – I see, oh dear, my my….
  • – Naming the feeling – “I can hear you’re very frustrated about that”, “that must have been embarrassing”….


Then watch in amazement as your empathy helps your child to let go of their emotion (and what was causing it) and cheerfully get on with life.

Try this.  It will transform your family.

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