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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Using Empathic Listening with Children

In my last post, I discussed the skill of structuring, and how it can be used to help prevent problems in families. Today, we’ll look at another component of Filial therapy: Empathic Listening. 

What is Empathic Listening? Empathic listening is a way of capturing the feeling a person conveys as well as the content. You may be wondering how this skill differs from a typical conversation. Empathic listening emphasizes emotions and the acceptance of these feelings. For example, if your child tells you after coming home from school, “Joey was mean to me and didn’t pick me for the game,” a typical response might be to say, “That’s not nice of him! What did you do?” An example of empathic listening would be to say, “Sounds like you’re really sad that you weren’t picked, and it sounds like you’re also angry at Joey.” 

So Why Would We Use Empathic Listening? There are several reasons one would choose to employ this method. First, this technique helps to acknowledge and validate the other person’s feelings. Validation can help someone to feel heard and accepted, which opens the door for deeper conversation and the possibility of change. In addition, for children, use of this technique helps children identify how they feel, which is much harder than it seems! Recognizing and identifying one’s own emotions is a skill that takes practice, even for many adults, and using this skill helps both of those areas.

What if You Misidentify a Child's Feelings? Sometimes when I teach parents this skill, they tell me that they tried it and it made their child upset, if they (the parent) incorrectly identified the feeling. This is common and is not a problem! If you perceive that your child is upset and they correct you, that’s actually great that they are identifying their own feelings! It is best to reflect then the corrected feeling to show that you’re hearing them. For example, if Susie yells in frustration and you reflect, “You’re annoyed,” she may retort, “I’m NOT annoyed! I’m furious!” You can re-connect by using her words, “Oh, you’re furious!” I have found that with anger especially, empathic listening is the first step in helping children to de-escalate, and an accurate reflection of the emotion can lead the way to the child calming down.

In short, empathic listening helps the other person to feel heard, accepted, and honored. It also helps children to recognize their own feelings, and can even promote articulation of their emotions. Give it a try!

Emily Herber McLean, LPC is a child and family therapist at The Center for Psychological Services. To learn more about her practice, visit www.centerpsych.com.
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