Is there a secret to raising kids with high self-esteem? Arguably there is. It’s a rarely known approach any parent can master: non-judgmental empathic listening coupled with normalization. Through this special blend, our children learn to trust their emotions. “Knowing that my feelings are okay allows me to know that I’m okay.”
Empathic listening1 begins by paying careful attention to our children’s words, tone of voice, and body language, and then reflecting back to them the particular emotions2 we hear or sense. I sense you’re feeling discouraged. I hear how angry you are. You seem upset. There’s a look of sadness on your face. In this way, we invite our children’s feelings into the room, noticing and labeling those feelings. This is the opposite of what we usually do. Our kids typically experience us trying to push their painful emotions away. They rarely hear us say, “Let’s pay attention to the hurt,” or “Tell me more about the sadness.” Instead, we focus on the story — “Tell me what happened” — rather than the child’s emotional experience. Yet it’s the emotional experience that needs our focus if we want our sons and daughters to come away from conversations with a sense of being deeply seen and heard.
Empathic listening must be non-judgmental: we convey that feelings are acceptable just as they are, without labeling them good, bad, right or wrong. This teaches our children to accept their emotions without filtering them through a judging lens. It’s easy to conclude that “something must be wrong with me” if we think of our emotions as somehow wrong or bad.
Following our empathic listening, if the source of our kids’ emotions isn’t already clear and our kids are calm enough to engage their logical brain (see Two Brains), we become a curious Sherlock, wondering what triggered those emotions. “Where do you think the sadness is coming from?” We’re teaching our kids to reflect on their feelings in order to make sense of them. “Where do you think the hurt is coming from?”
Finally, we normalize the emotions: “Of course you feel that way,” or “I’m sure many kids would feel the way you do.” Normalization lets youth know that they aren’t weird or unusual to feel as they do.
Empathic listening without judgment and with normalization is the formula that leads our children to trust their emotions, with the invaluable self-esteem boost that comes with that. “Knowing that my feelings are okay allows me to know that I am okay.”
1 Empathic listening is sometimes referred to as attunement.
2 In this Tip, feelings and emotions are used interchangeably.