When Empathy Doesn’t Work

“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”                                    – Brené Brown, Ph.D. 

I once entered an elevator to the sounds of a crying infant. The mother faced forward and was holding the baby up to face the rear of the elevator. She was shifting her body from side to side and patting the baby’s back in an attempt to quiet her. I stood with my back at the rear of the elevator and turned my head to look at the baby’s face. The baby looked at me. “You seem upset,” I acknowledged, nodding slightly. The baby instantly stopped crying and stared at me with what looked like a mixture of relief and disbelief. (A story I shared in my post, “Baby Manipulator”)

Empathy can have a powerfully calming effect, particularly in the early years with children. I imagine that’s because our babies and toddlers are limited in their ability to communicate thoughts and emotions, so they’re not accustomed to feeling understood. When that happens… Whoa! What a wonderful surprise! They not only feel heard and understood, but also have the reassurance from one of the extremely important adults in their lives that it’s perfectly okay for them to feel what they’re feeling. It’s no wonder empathy can make children feel instantly better.

Yet, for all the inspiring stories I hear from parents and professionals about the miraculous power of empathy, I also hear concerns about empathy not working. Here are the most common reasons empathy doesn’t work:

It’s not supposed to.

Empathy can work like magic, but like all magic, it doesn’t work if we try to make it work. In fact, it will often only serve to aggravate the situation when we try to use empathy as a technique for getting kids to stop crying. For example, we might say, “You are so upset about such-and-such,” while our not-so-subtle subtext is stop crying, I’m understanding you already! I’m acknowledging your darn feelings, so enough!  Or, perhaps, we rush in to hug our angry child to make it better. Or, perhaps, we rush in to hug our angry child to make it better. This kind of response is certainly understandable and well-intentioned! But if we think about it, that isn’t empathy; it is impatience. Never doubt that children know the difference.

Empathy isn’t a tactic. It is a way of connecting that must be pure and genuine. It is the opposite of calming tantrums, soothing sadness, squelching feelings. It is all about accepting, allowing, even welcoming feelings to be expressed, however strong they are and long they last.

It’s too big a leap.

To empathize authentically we must understand our child’s point of view, but often we don’t, at least not in the moment. At those times, when we simply acknowledge what we see, “It upset you when Joey touched your shoulder,” it can help steer us towards understanding and empathy. We might realize, “Oh, that’s right, it’s almost naptime, and she gets very sensitive to touch when she’s tired.”

So rather than attempting to empathize, I prefer infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice to acknowledge. For me, acknowledge feels cleaner and more accurate.

Also, when our goal is to empathize, we’re more inclined (especially with preverbal children) to veer into projecting — taking the child’s feelings to the next level. For example, we might say to our only slightly startled toddler, “That dog barking scared you!” Instead of, “That surprised you, didn’t it?”

Our thoughts and feelings matter because they almost always set the tone for our children (evident when you see children fall and then immediately check with the parent to “see” how they should feel). So, when our well-intentioned attempts to empathize misfire, we can actually end up intensifying our children’s emotional responses and making them feel less competent. It’s safer to acknowledge, “You tripped on the rug and fell. I saw.” And then wait to see how the child feels about it before empathizing, “Ouch, that hurt.”

It opens the floodgates.

A parent shared, “Empathy doesn’t work with my child… When I try acknowledging her feelings she cries even harder…and it doesn’t seem to stop. How long should I let her cry?”

This, actually, is empathy working. Beautifully.

When we acknowledge our child’s perspective patiently and genuinely…

When we are bravely willing to wait, listen, accept, not talk too much or even at all, and not put a time limit on emotional expression…

When we can be quietly available to our child for hugs or cuddles without initiating them…

We then encourage children to express the emotions and stress they may have been holding onto for hours, days, weeks, months, even years.

When empathy is patient, present, calm, open, accepting, and real, it will always work to bring you closer. And feeling truly connected always eases our pain, sooner or later.

acknowledge feelings poster for post



I share more about empathy and emotional health in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)


(Photo and poster by Sara Prince, author of bonzo, chooch, mushy and me)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. bert powell and co from circle of security share some awesome examples of infant adult interactions similar to your elevator example v touching and amazing really

  2. This is really a great point, Janet. I have definitely been guilty of the “I feel you but can you please stop screaming” at times! I find this line sometimes hard to navigate with my 3.5 year old: acknowledge what’s going on so as not to project and be too intrusive, let him express his feelings fully, yet not come through as “cold” (I have witnessed acknowledgement that seems removed, distant and find it disturbing, off the mark). I am always intent in attuning to my son, and wanting him to feel felt by me. One thing I noticed is this: since I have always done my best to encourage his feelings and accept them and him fully without judgement and with compassion, I can often trust my son to let me know if I’m off base in my empathy or attuning (in fact he can get quite upset letting me know that’s not it at all!) But he knows I’m trying, I’m interested in understanding what’s going with him, and I feel this is a big part of our bond. In a way, just like I appreciate his efforts more than results, he appreciates mine as well. Anyway, I love how you describe the complexity of that response that contains all those elements of empathy, acceptance, understanding, warmth, love, connection, calm, trust… Always so wonderful to read your words, thank you 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Helene. Yes, navigating these situations can be tricky, and I’ve noticed that it is much, much easier to demonstrate an empathic presence than it is to explain it in writing. That is one of the many benefits of the RIE Parent- Infant and Toddler Classes I teach…all the demonstrating we can do each week when these situations naturally come up. It was only about a year ago that I realized there was confusion around “acknowledging” and that parents were attempting to use this as calming tactic, rather than as a way to connect and encourage the feelings.

      I also think this is a situation in which we really can check ourselves by visualizing our child as an upset friend. Would we try to control our friends emotions? Or would we simply, quietly listen with openness…and maybe even tenderness.

      “But he knows I’m trying, I’m interested in understanding what’s going with him, and I feel this is a big part of our bond…” Yes, yes, YES!

  3. I really appreciate this post. And I see wonders when I wait patiently for my 2.5yr old son to finish his emotional expressions. Sometimes though, he can get really upset for example I do not allow him to sit in the drivers seat of the car to play with the steering wheel and the keys and all the ‘fun’ and ultimately dangerous things over there. His grandparents allowed it once, and I explained the rules to them as diplomatically as I could. But you know kids, they remember!!!! and he is so fast!!! He can climb to the front seat while I’m opening the front door and i will have to get him out by force if he does not get out by himself. and he can get REALLY upset and might scream for what seems like hours. And he will say things like “get away from me” or “stop talking to me”. In moments like these I take a very deep breath and respect his wishes and move away and stop talking. Still staying close enough for him to see me. I let him cry and bang his hands and feet or whatever else he needs to do within reason of course. And then I’ll say “I can see you are very upset that I took you out of the car away from the steering wheel. I will not allow you to play there as it is dangerous and for mommy and daddy only. I’m sorry. I love you and I am here for you”. Often I will be kneeling down when I say something like this and he will run desperately into my arms and shortly after that it’s over. I think real empathy needs a bit of thought. We really have to put ourselves in our kids shoes to understand how truly upset they feel. and I do tell him it’s ok to feel angry and it’s ok to cry. I keep telling him how much I love him and whatever happens I am here to hold him and love him. He is such a sweet boy that it breaks my heart when he gets so upset but it does not happen often. It is also very exhausting to watch, wait, not interfere with the process because as grown-ups we always want to FIX things and rescue the children from any upset! But I believe that their journey is theirs to travel! We are there to enjoy the ride with them and to hold their hand gently, with love, allowing them to make mistakes, fall down, express anger, pain, love, joy and everything else a human being might express!
    Thank you for your posts… they really do hit homebase!

    1. Very well said! Thank you, Alexia. Keep up the wonderful work.

  4. My nine years old boy needed to cry. But I have a real difficulty in listening to him crying because a few years ago he had three grave accidents in a row that shocked me so much… I can hardly recall those incidents without feeling upset and nervous. So eventhough I am quite good at acknowledging other children´s feelings I was very resistant to listen to my boy crying. A few months ago, he was in a very bad mood, really stressed and angry. I breathed deeply and told to myself: ok, now is the time. So I sat down and said something like: I can see you are upset and made myself really available to hear his feelings pouring out. That was it. He started crying, almost screaming, complaining about how bothering his brothers are for around 45 minutes, without pause, without stop. He was so loud my husband came in from his studio twice to check everything was alright… I breathed deeply, listened and acknoleged during all that time which wasn`t an easy task. When he was done, he suddenly changed his tone, voice and look transforming himself into a very calm and contented boy and asked me where his brothers were for he wanted to play with them! (The ones you`ve been complainging about for an hour? I thought)… They are upstairs, son.
    It was really, really hard for me to listen to him crying like he did, but it must have been much harder for him to bear with those feelings (maybe for a long time) without finding anyone willing to listen, care and acknowledge.

    1. Wow, Fernanda, such a beautiful and important story. Thank you so much for relating it here. I send love to you in Argentina!

  5. This explains why my 3 yo cries harder when I acknowledge her upset! It seems like whenever I say “You really want a cookie. They’re so good, and I bet you’d like to eat one every day,” or whatever, she just cries harder. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to say anything!

    1. Yes, you can trust these feelings, Louise. They are being expressed because they were in there in the first place.

      A small point… I don’t recommend adding, “They’re so good, and I bet you’d like to eat one every day…” I believe that might come off as taunting (although I realize that is not your intention). It’s also making assumptions…and leading our child rather than staying right with her where she is… These are her feelings not ours.
      I recall Laura Markham making those kinds of recommendations and I disagree with her in this case.

  6. After starting to follow positive parenting technique my life has changed immensely.acknowledging feelings of my 3 yr old has helped us a lot. Thank god I found your blog. I can better handle situations at home. Can’t thank you more for making me better as a parent and also as an individual.

    Sometimes when my dd has meltdownn she knows that i will get down to her level and acknowledge her feelings.so she screams “dont talk to me” and runs away and cries harder.. it breaks my heart. What can I do to help it?
    She sometimes wakes up in the night crying loudly and nothing will calm her. And she seems to cry on for like 10 min ir more. Can you please help?

  7. Hi Janet,
    This is very useful, thanks. I have a query about your comment on “rushing in to hug” I totally get that the whole “There, there, you’re ok have a hug” reaction is hugely counter productive to what we are trying to do. However, I was reading No Drama Discipline recently and they were talking about the importance of making a physical connection first. (I know its aimed at older kids) So my question is, when my toddler is upset about something I tend to acknowledge what is going on then I either touch his arm or open my arms to him. I don’t say anything. Most of the time he comes to have a hug and then he tells me how he is feeling or cries in my arms for a while and expresses how upset/angry etc he is. (sometimes he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, so I just make sure he knows I’m here when he needs me)I never pick him up or cuddle him unless he asks for it. Have I got it totally wrong? Before when I wasn’t initiating contact he would rarely come to be comforted and he would be upset for a lot longer but now I’m wondering if I’m just sweeping things under the rug… Hmm this parenting lark isn’t easy… Any thoughts gratefully received.

    1. That sounds fine to me, Sarah. The key is our intention…and I believe it’s important to reflect on that. Am I touching my child because I’m impatient or to genuinely, patiently connect?

  8. A really timely article for me
    My dear 3 3/4 year old ia struggling with big emotions due tp new baby.

  9. Catherine says:

    Thank you, Janet. I’ve been waiting for a post like this! When I first began acknowledging my son’s big feelings (8 months? 10 months?) I was amazed at how immediately he would calm down. At an older age, when he sometimes melted on the floor and didn’t calm down quickly, I would sit near him in addition to acknowledging his emotions. Now he is 2.5 yrs old. I have learned slowly that,as you suggest, it’s okay to repeat what he says, but not ok to add a single word (such as linking it to why he is upset or to naming an emotion). Also, no repeating it unless he repeats it. Silence is better.

    Another things that happens now is that he often tells me to go away. How do you recommend I handle that?

    And, it might sound silly (I agree that seeing this modeled would be helpful)…What is an appropriate facial expression when I’m simply witnessing his emotion? …How do I convey compassion without conveying pity?

    Also, sometimes when he is upset but trying to talk to us, we can’t understand him at all. It seems that it would be helpful to help him learn calming strategies such as taking deep breathes etc. But I think you disagree? Could you explain that to me again? As an adult, I do things like that so that I can not just experience my emotion, but also respond to whatever the present situation is (and so I can behave in socially appropriate ways).). I imagine he will benefit from skills like this at school when he’s older, too.

  10. (My first comment!) After discovering RIE late in the game with an almost 18 month old, she’s now 2 and this post is so timely. She’s not *supposed* to calm down – ah! My husband used to acknowledge her feelings more when it got her to stop crying, but now he sees it as not working because she often cries more when we say “I see you’re upset.” He’s now having her take deep breaths to calm down, even before she gets overly upset (and that seems counter-RIE to me) except that it does help her focus on what she was trying to tell us without getting overwhelmed. We catch her taking breaths all on her own now if something doesn’t go her way. Many times she will even start laughing so much at the “whoo” sound her deep breath makes when she was the middle of loud crying, that she’ll turn a 180 and stop crying and go right back to being happy or calmly telling us what she needed. My question is, do you have an opinion on this technique even if it is making her calm?

  11. Maria Lee says:

    Hi Janet,
    Yes! It can be so easy to lose the connection. I’m learning a different “dialect” of connection, called non-violent communication (NVC) or compassionate communication. It has helped give me another frame of reference on how to better connect with people. I have been feeling great when I use it! And conversely, not so great when I don’t. Haha. Are you familiar with this?


  12. Thanks for this post! Here’s my question/observation: I’m convinced of the need to accept and not rush my daughter’s emotions, but I find the process *exhausting*. I try to change my mental narrative about it (they are her emotions, not mine) but I just can’t get around the fact that I feel frazzled by the end of her long tantrums. Any thoughts/advice?

  13. I re-posted this, Janet, with the idea of how much of what you talk about can be applied to the workplace, too. Thanks for the inspiration!

  14. Thanks Janet for this clarification on why sometimes it doesn’t work and what to differently. It was Most insightful on the point for me was understanding why stating their POV helped so much in connecting through empathy. Thank you! I also felt a sigh of relief reading that some cry more intensly as they work through emotions as my daughter sometimes needs to let more out than my son. Thank you for both of those insightful points! Sincerely, Sherra

  15. Katerina Konstantinidi says:

    Amazing text!!! I absolutely love your points…..thank you for writing….you ve helped me like ,no one else, change my approach towards those difficult moments in motherhood….
    and this word “empathy”…has been soooo misused by people…(especially those with new age approaches..)….
    and actually parenthood can be seen as a whole spiritual path…
    allowing things to be…giving space….letting go….
    lots of love!

  16. Lisa Dixon says:

    Hi I work in a preschool with one little girl, 3.5, brand new very sad and missing her mum, and crying lots. I accept that she needs to cry, and acknowledge that she is sad, it’s ok to miss her mum. I have a problem with others I work with who tell her and others to ‘stop crying’, they say it works, as she stops crying and starts to play, then cries again when I appear. I believe she will stop crying when she is ready, and feels secure and comfortable and that it can’t be forced- but must admit I am starting to doubt myself, when others say I should be ‘firm’ and implying that I am inadvertently reinforcing her crying!! Would love your thoughts on this

    1. I am with you, Lisa! I see it as a great honor to be the one children can cry with.

  17. I am realizing how necessary it is to take in information…let time pass, then re-expose myself. I have read so many of your posts/books and keep coming back for more and get new things out of them each time. Right now I am working on my own impatience. I have 2.5 year old twins and I feel guilty that I do not empathize enough when they have big feelings, as there is always someone who needs attention. I like the slight shift to ‘acknowledging’ in these moments. Thank you!

    1. That’s an important realization, Mercedes. Truly, your only responsibilities around your children’s feelings are to accept and acknowledge. Sometimes this will mean being present, other times it will be, “You didn’t like when that happened.” And then, “I’m going to continue making dinner and will be back to check on you.”

  18. As a licensed psychotherapist who is also married to a psychologist, my husband and are pretty familiar with the power of empathy. Reflecting our children’s emotions, letting them know we understand their experiences & equipping them with emotion language has been quite effective with 2 of our 3 children. My now 5 year old daughter learned quite early that emotions get attention and will use them to try to get what she wants (whether it’s staying up late, a movie or different option for dinner). When we validate/acknowledge it is not what she wants and turns up the heat with very loud screaming, tantruming, head banging and biting herself. We know she has emotional regulation because she NEVER demonstrates these behaviors at full time preschool. She also uses “owes” to get our attention to the point we started to think she had sensory issues until her teacher shared that she has NEVER mentioned an “owie” at school. My husband and I are as attentive as full time working parents of 3 under the age of 5 can be. Admittedly its a delicate balance between discouraging the behavior and not invalidating her experience. At this point, positive reinforcement of appropriate expression and extinction of the intense tantruming & self harm has proven to be the most effective but am open to other options if this doesn’t Continue to work. work.

    1. “…learned quite early that emotions get attention and will use them to try to get what she wants (whether it’s staying up late, a movie or different option for dinner).” Lauren, her emotions only work as “tactics” if you give in to those demands, because you want her to stop. Do you?

      1. Guilty, up until about a year ago. It’s been hard to re-teach that emotions are not a tool to get what you want. We’re owning our errors with her, but I admit that her expressions can be quite intense and difficult to tolerate in the moment.

  19. My son does not really like hugs, snuggling, or even sitting on my lap sometime. Other resources recommend a hug when your child is upset or acting out. I find this upsets him more. Should I stick with a less constricting type of physical rich like touching his arm or rubbing his back. I get the feeling he feels trapped by hugs and snuggles. He is 3.5.

    1. My brother was a lot like that as a child – if he was upset, touching him would make him even more upset. He just couldn’t handle the tactile stimulation when he was trying to deal with intense emotion. My advice would be to just stay next to your son, at a distance that doesn’t make him more upset, and let him know that you’re there for him and that his emotions aren’t going to make you get angry with him or leave him all alone to figure them out. When he starts to calm down – when he feels validated and understood and the emotions are settling – then he might be really glad for your presence and want a hug.

  20. I really agree with this, and try to implement it, but I must confess I sometimes do wish my cranky nearly-four-year-old would just stop yelling quicker.

  21. How does this apply to biting? I’m mystified by what my 2.5 yr son is feeling when he bites. We have our second child on the way. Yesterday he went to kiss my cheek and bit me. Biting seems like a special case because it’s big confusing emotions mixed with definitely unallowed behavior. I have a hard time knowing the right mix of staying unruffled, communicating that I was hurt physically, trying to connect with his big feelings and understanding them, etc.

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