Empathy: The Formula for Handling Fusses and Fits

The word empathy is one that is often used at the Weekday School. Empathy is so much more than those sweet moments when we witness a young child engaging in an act of kindness. While those acts of kindness are so important to our communities, brain research suggests that offering empathy has a long-term impact on brain development and problem solving. When we offer empathy to our children, we open the door to being aware of strong emotions so that children can learn to regulate their  emotions, ultimately learning that they alone are responsible for how they choose to respond in moments of upset.

Empathy requires what is known as the Power of Acceptance: accepting the moment as it is. This is in contrast to denying the moment and focusing on what should be. (He knows better…. we don’t throw toys in the house…) When we notice the moment as it is, without judging it, we then have the opportunity to reframe the situation in order to see it as a child (or even another adult) would! This does not mean that we necessarily agree that it is ok for our children to throw toys or write on the walls; it simply means that we pause and accept the situation for what it is before moving on to offer guidance. While pausing, it is helpful to remember that the actions of a child are forms of communication. Young children need the opportunity to practice identifying emotions and ways to regulate those emotions so that they can move on to problem solving.

When we are faced with a situation where someone has done or said something that invokes strong emotions, it is vital that we acknowledge those feelings. Again, acknowledging our feelings falls under the power of acceptance. It is then that we can pivot to offer empathy, and turn a difficult moment into a teachable one. The formula for offering empathy is as follows:

  1. Describe: Mirror the child’s physical actions. “Your feet are going like this, and your face is going like this.” The child will most likely stop to look at you so they can be sure that you got it “right.”
  2. Name: We must act quickly here to help the child move into problem solving mode, and so they do not become their emotions.

“You seem                                                                                                     (add a feeling word)?”

  1. Acknowledge: Again, we want to act quickly after we name the emotion for the child. “You wanted  (state what you think the child wanted).” If we hang out too long in the naming portion of the formula, we can get stuck there!

When addressing the child’s feelings, it is helpful to use a tentative, almost questioning tone of voice. If we have labeled the emotion incorrectly, the child will most likely tell you! “No, I’m not feeling sad. I’m feeling angry!” Allowing the child to acknowledge or correct serves two purposes: the first is that it sends the message that the child’s feelings are valid, and secondly, it gives the child the opportunity to move toward the pre-frontal cortex, or CEO of the brain. The goal here is not to distract the child from his or her emotions, but to understand in order to teach the child another way of getting his or her needs met.

If the child is, kicking, and yelling, and does not respond to you, it is best to offer comfort in the way of deep breathing, or even picking the child up to keep them safe. At that moment, the child is in a survival state, and will not be able to hear your message. If the child is in a state of upset (crying, name calling, or they have their arms crossed), then you can offer the formula above. Some children can exhibit signs of mild upset through whining, looking slightly anxious, or showing confusion if they have experienced a change in schedule. This is the best time to offer empathy in the form of information.

  • Mom: “Max, you seem worried?” (Again, remembering to use a tentative voice so he can correct you if you haven’t gotten it right!)
  • Max: “Yeah”
  • Mom: “You were hoping to keep playing with your blocks. I get it. Today feels different because Grandma is coming over to take you to the library. You have a choice! You can choose to put your blocks away first, or put your shoes on first. What will you choose?”

Our brains are wired with more pathways travelling from the Limbic system to the pre-frontal cortex. This simply means that strong emotions, if left unregulated, can dictate how we respond in difficult situations. The good news with composure and empathy is that we can pause to acknowledge those feelings, and pivot to offer guidance so we can teach our children a different way of getting their needs met when the going gets tough!



Bailey, B. (2015). Building Resilient Classrooms. Oviedo, Florida: Loving Guidance, Inc.

Parlakian, R., & Lerner, C. (2009). Tips on helping your child develop empathy. Retrieved from http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/social-emotional-development/take-a-walk-in-my-shoes.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/



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