Empathy: The Forgotten Discipline Tool

By: Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S

In my parenting classes, I often use this disclaimer when sharing a new parenting tool: “this is not a magic trick.” I say this to remind parents that children are not robots; we can not follow an exact formula and get an exact result because humans and situations are unpredictable and complex. However, I sometimes feel magic is an appropriate adjective for the tool of empathy.

Empathy means feeling with. When we sympathize with someone, we feel bad for them, but from a distance. When we empathize, we are able to be truly connected with them and feel with them. Using empathy transforms relationships, reduces tension and improves behavior. It is also one of the most effective discipline tools.

Imagine coming home from a very difficult day and venting to your spouse or partner about how terrible it was. You might say something like “you can not even imagine how terrible work was today. The demands on me are so unreasonable and I am sick of it. I feel like quitting. I am so over the horrible treatment I am receiving from my boss!” What do you want from your partner? What would help you the most? How about if they said this: “You need to get a hold of yourself! I don’t want to hear you talk like that about work – we need that income! Maybe if you had a better attitude things would not be going so bad for you. Why don’t you just talk to your boss about your work load? Come on, calm down!” You can probably feel your stress rising just reading this example. You most certainly would not respond to those kind of comments by thanking them for helping you and then enjoying your renewed positive attitude about work. In fact, you would feel worse and likely get even louder and more negative about your job.

Empathy is not usually thought of as a discipline tool. To be honest, it is often the last thing we are thinking of when our children are misbehaving. When children are refusing to do their homework, having a meltdown over a minor issue, or telling us they hate us for our stupid rules, our heart is not really going out to them. We are mad, hurt, and afraid. Sometimes we even feel like getting them back. Even if we are not angry about something our children are saying or doing, we might respond to their complaints and stress by explaining to them they do not need to feel that way or telling them to stop.

Child: I hate homework I am not going to do it!
Parent: Well get used to it, you are in 3rd grade now and you are most definitely going to do it.

Child: All my friends were mean to me today.
Parent: Nonsense! I saw you talking with Sarah at carpool.

Child: I hate these stupid rules!
Parent: We do not talk like that in this house!

Child: This is so unfair! I am in the middle of my show and I want to keep watching TV!
Parent: I don’t want to hear your complaints! Just cooperate for once and go brush your teeth!

If these examples sound all too familiar, don’t worry: you are not alone. These are very common responses from parents. We are all tired and trying to do the best we can with the very intense and emotional job of parenting. Most of the responses above are well intended attempts to help children see reality or to get to them to do what they need to do. The problem is, they do neither. No child has responded to lectures or demands with : “good point mom, I think I will get started on my homework right away” or ” I see what you mean, I really do have a lot of great friends.” On the contrary, they push back, protest, or try even harder to convince you of their point of view.

Theresa Wiseman, an empathy researcher, explains that the elements of empathy are: staying out of judgment, perspective taking, and expressing understanding. Staying out of judgment means we do not consider whether or not what our child feels is “right.” We do not judge their perspective. Perspective taking means putting ourselves into our child’s shoes. The skills of getting into our child’s world opens doors to creative and loving parenting. We can practice this by remembering our own childhood experience and even by imagining what we would feel like in the same situation as an adult (as we did previously when we imagined telling our partner about a bad day at work.) Finally, expressing understanding means finding something in our child’s experience we can join with and validate. This does not mean approving of their language or choices, but it does mean looking behind their less mature attempts to express themselves to the truth in their reality.

Here are some empathy responses:

Child: I hate homework and I’m not going to do it!
Parent: I don’t blame you for not wanting to do your homework after that long day of school. In fact, I remember feeling the very same way sometimes when I was your age.

Child: All my friends were mean to me today.
Parent: You seem so sad about that.

Child: I hate these stupid rules!
Parent: I can see you are very angry about not being able to do what you want.

Child: This is so unfair! I am in the middle of my show and want to keep watching!
Parent: That is disappointing. I know it is one of your favorites.

Using empathy in this way does not mean changing the rules or keeping the TV on. Parents still need to follow through with what is best for their families. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline and founder of the Positive Discipline Association calls this Connect Before Correct. That is a wonderful reminder to join with our children and show understanding before move to correcting our children.


Tracy McConaghie and her husband Andrew McConaghie own McConaghie Counseling in Alpharetta. She specializes in helping children and families with divorce, parenting, anxiety and behavior problems. Andrew specializes in couples counseling, including divorce counseling.  Both Andrew and Tracy help divorcing couples create successful parenting plans for their divorce.  They are available for therapy or consultation in their office or via phone or video conferencing. You can also visit  McConaghie Counseling online at www.mcconaghiecounseling.com.