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Video contains strong language 

Take a Closer Look

It may seem at first glance that the father in this video isn’t offering his daughter much — he’s not helping lift her spirits with words of encouragement, nor offering advice for how she might cope with her distress. But his use of empathic listening, as explained below, provides a far more valuable benefit than any momentary “fix” he might deliver: he’s promoting his daughter’s self-esteem. Here’s how he does it: 

Name Their Emotions

Dad names and reflects back to his daughter her specific emotions of anger and disappointment. This leaves her feeling accurately seen and heard. It also helps her develop clarity about precisely what she’s feeling, as emotions can often mystify us. By accurately labeling his daughter’s emotions, this father helps her build her emotion vocabulary, a central aspect of emotional intelligence. 

Validate Their Emotions

When dad says, “I can understand that” about his daughter’s feelings, she knows that her feelings make sense. Having clarity about our emotions and trusting that they are okay is a critical foundation of self-esteem. When I know my emotions are okay, I know that I’m okay (see Trusting Emotions). Importantly, a parent does not have to agree with a child or see things in the same way in order to identify and acknowledge a child’s feelings through empathic listening. We don’t always understand or relate to our children’s emotions, but we can nevertheless validate those emotions by saying, “I understand how, from your perspective, you feel the way you do.” (Question or challenge their perspective at a later time, if it needs challenging at all.) This special kind of listening asks parents to set aside their own judgments and opinions for the sake of providing the healing support that comes from feeling seen and heard. And when done effectively, empathic listening strengthens the parent-child bond.

It’s said that every wound needs a witness to heal fully. In Empathic Listening, dad becomes his daughter’s witness. He sets aside the sadness and compassion he feels as he hears her story, knowing it’s her emotions that need to be center stage. And he wisely refrains from trying to cheer her up or offer advice. He knows that while painful emotions are churning, she needs nothing more from him than empathic listening delivered with a tone of loving compassion. Advice, if needed at all, is best saved for later, when the emotional brain has settled and the logical brain can come to the fore (see Two Brains). 

It’s not easy for us to deliver empathic listening while our own distress is triggered by our children’s struggles. That’s why we often try to cheer our children up in their painful moments; we’re trying to cheer ourselves up, too. But our feelings should be secondary at times like that. Dad delivers just a sliver of emotional honesty when he says, “I’m feeling badly this happened to you.” Nothing more is needed at that moment.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.