Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

Let’s imagine our daughter comes home from school in a pretty bad mood. She storms in, kicks the cat, yells at her little sister and generally growls at anyone who looks her way.

You ask, “How was your day?” She replies “Horrible, Mrs. B. sent me to detention again for no reason! I hate her, I hate that school! It sucks!” Can you picture it??

Empathy and Parenting

Carl Rogers, a famous psychologist, suggests that 80% of our communication falls into five main categories:

  • Judgmental
  • Interpretive
  • Supportive / Reassuring
  • Questioning
  • Understanding / Empathic

A particular style is not good or bad in itself, and we need to use all of them at some time, but if we want a conversation to go well some styles can be less effective.

This is particularly important as a parent. Sometimes it can help if we decide how we are going to respond to our kids, instead of just reacting, or saying what we first think of.

Let’s imagine our daughter comes home from school in a pretty bad mood. She storms in, kicks the cat, yells at her little sister and generally growls at anyone who looks her way. You ask, “How was your day?”  She replies “Horrible, Mrs. B. sent me to detention again for no reason! I hate her, I hate that school! It sucks!” Can you picture it??

OK, here are are a few things we might picture ourselves saying:

Well it can’t have been for no reason,  Did you do something wrong to get a detention?” (Judgmental)

You always get so upset at school, your problem is you let the little things get to you…” (Interpretive)

“Don’t worry, teachers are stupid everyone knows that!” or “It will be alright in the long run, do something else to take your mind of it all”  (Supportive/Reassuring )

Maybe you, like me will want to know some details and start probing:  “What Happened?…Who was involved with you?…Where were you when all this happened?” etc (Questioning)

Or maybe if you have a bit of time, you might say: “Sounds like you had an awful day” or “You’re feeling so annoyed and frustrated with school hey?” (Empathic)

We are all likely to reply with any of these types of responses at different times, but Rogers suggests that if you want someone to really talk with you, or you want to show them you are listening – then the empathic or understanding response is the way to go. It shows someone you have heard what they said, and you are willing to hear some more if they want to talk about it.

…if you want someone to really talk with you… then the empathic or understanding response is the way to go.
The other responses are more likely to close your child up, or make them feel judged or not really understood – even the supportive response can sometimes give the message that what your child is feeling isn’t real or important.

It can feel a bit unusual at first, and it can take a bit of practice to sound natural, but it is amazing how it works. Why not try out a few of these with your children (when they least expect it !!)

You sound really…upset, excited,  annoyed
You seem …sad /uncertain etc… about that
It’s been a really hard time for you lately…
It seems to me that you are so… unhappy …at the moment.

To be good reflective listeners we need to resist the urge to ask questions or always give advice. Of course this is not all there is to good communication, but Rogers suggests it’s a great start. Sometimes our kids just want to know that we are trying to understand how they feel.

– Annette Flanagan, 2010

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