Strengthening Empathy in Kids

The Delicate Balance Between Self and Others

Magazine Issue
March/April 2023
Strengthening Empathy in Kids

I see a lot of parents eager to understand what they can do to raise kind, responsible kids. They want to shepherd their children into adulthood in ways that set them up, as much as possible, to have meaningful, close relationships and find professional satisfaction. They want to support their children in being confident—but not so confident that they cross the line into being entitled, demeaning, or ungrateful. They want to help their kids develop healthy self-esteem—but not so healthy that it distances them from people who suffer. They want to teach and model what it means to be in touch with emotions, even big, hard-to-feel emotions like anger—but not so in touch that big emotions engulf them or get expressed in hurtful ways.

Many parents, in short, are afraid of raising narcissists.

At extreme ends, empathy and narcissism are like oil and water. Highly narcissistic people lack empathy, and genuinely empathetic people aren’t narcissistic. For this reason, raising empathetic children who have a healthy, balanced sense of self and feel connected to others is a kind of psychological insurance policy we can invest in as therapists, parents, caregivers, teachers, family members, and neighbors nurturing the next generation of global citizens.

Empathy is at the core of emotional intelligence, and it’s part of what helps kids identify and manage feelings, and respond appropriately to others’ feelings. The more a parent can be with their own big emotions—like anger—the more they can remain present with children who are struggling with these emotions in themselves. The more children can expand their capacity to experience big emotions in healthy ways, the likelier they are to empathize with others’ emotional experiences and navigate their social worlds skillfully.

As a therapist who works with parents and children, I’m part of this healing feedback loop. When I stay present with parents’ big emotions—not the easiest thing to do when clients yell, sob uncontrollably, or get highly anxious in my office—I’m modeling what it looks like to remain calm, present, and connected in the midst of big emotions, something parents will benefit from doing more of with their own children.

Handling Big Emotions

With my client Reyna, I remind myself to stay grounded and receptive as she settles into the couch in my office. She’s a single mom in her early 30s, who works from home as a sales representative. She wants to be a better parent, but feels overwhelmed by her kids, job, bills, and responsibilities. Her former partner is in and out of drug rehab and hasn’t been able to support them financially or emotionally for years.

“I can’t handle it,” Reyna says. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What can’t you handle?” I ask gently, though I suspect she’s referring to parenting Brittany, her three-year-old daughter, and Marcus, her five-year-old son. Although Marcus goes to school five days a week, she has virtually no help with Brittany.

“I wake up, cook, pay bills, feed the kids, bathe them, drop Marcus off at school, put Brittany in front of an iPad, and work for hours on end,” Reyna says. “Yesterday, Marcus stole Brittany’s toy car—her favorite—while I was trying to clean. She kept screaming, ‘Mommy, he took my toy!’ and when I told her to stop, she threw a huge tantrum!”

“That sounds hard,” I reflect.

“She started throwing things around the room. She knocked over a lamp. Marcus was taunting her and laughing. In that moment, I hated them both!”

I can feel the intensity of Reyna’s anger toward her kids as she grits her teeth and squeezes her fists. My own stomach clenches, and my back tenses up as I sense my autonomic nervous system recoil. In my work, however, I’ve learned to thank my body for giving me cues. They’re beacons signaling me to respond with an opposite energy. I take a breath and physically lean into the thing I want to lean away from, while infusing my own voice with emotion that mirrors hers. “There’s a strong, visceral reaction to your kids in that moment,” I say. “In that moment, you can’t stand them.”

“I bet you think I’m a horrible mom,” Reyna says defensively.

“I think you’re a human mom,” I say, matching her intensity in the tone of my voice and facial expression. I want to help her get curious about the threat to her equilibrium her children’s behaviors represents.

Reyna’s shoulders relax, and her jaw softens. The emotional toxicity of the situation she’s describing seems to drain out of her.

“It’s not how I really feel about them,” she says, looking calmer. “I love them both so much. I know they need me to bring order to the chaos, but it’s hard, and I sometimes feel so helpless. I just want it to go away.”

When I stay present with Reyna through her dysregulation, resisting any urge to judge her, she moves into empathic curiosity about her own reactions. She might now have more of the same curiosity to give when her children’s dysregulation shows up in ferocious, unpredictable ways. This is a first step toward expanding her capacity to be present with Brittany’s hard feelings and set firmer limits with Marcus. Sitting with parents in their big emotions offers a felt sense of what it’d be like to sit with children in theirs—an autonomic how-to guide that will ultimately help children develop their capacity to sit with other people’s intense feelings. This capacity is at the root of empathy.

Of course, plenty of kids with struggling parents don’t grow up to be narcissists. Many brothers who take their sister’s favorite toys are otherwise thoughtful and caring. But listening to Reyna’s story—sensing her guilt, anger, exhaustion, and overwhelm—I knew she needed help and guidance. If these kinds of interactions happened all the time between Brittany and Marcus, and Reyna couldn’t empathize with her daughter’s predicament or set limits with her son, what would these two children end up learning?

I pictured a 14-year-old Brittany facing relationships with friends and romantic partners sabotaged by the belief people can take things from me when they want because my needs don’t matter. And what about a 16-year-old Marcus? Would he walk through life with the belief I can take things from people whenever I want?

Additional childcare, financial resources, and other community services would undoubtably reduce Reyna’s stress levels and improve her parenting. But our work in therapy can also make a difference. We begin identifying what will help her manage her stress and big emotions in healthier ways. From there, she can practice being more of the parent her kids need: a guide and nurturer with the emotional bandwidth to set firm, protective boundaries.

Cultivating Empathy

We live in a culture that values independence over interdependence. Many would argue that our society rewards narcissists—that whoever wins, gets famous or rich, or “makes it,” is “the best.” Often, we learn that what matters is being on top, no matter what it takes to get there, or whom you harm in the process.

I don’t have hard data to prove it, but my guess is that narcissists are overrepresented in any field that glorifies hierarchy—in corporations, government, and academia. In the West, narcissistic adults aren’t typically castigated for their self-promotion, lack of empathy, or arrogant behaviors: instead, they become influencers. They’re granted their own TV shows.

Although no one has definitively identified the roots of narcissism, some studies claim people may be genetically predisposed to it. Plenty of other studies tout parenting behaviors as the cause. These injurious behaviors include failing to say no often enough, overindulging children, being too protective, praising too much, and criticizing too much. But lists like these can do more harm than good when they’re taken literally or out of context. Many parents already struggle with policing themselves at every turn, second-guessing their intuition, and ruminating about all the things they’ve done wrong or could have done better. Rather than getting sidetracked by what not to do, parents can cultivate empathy for themselves and their children, change course, and take steps to meet kids’ needs.

In my work with Reyna, I helped her experience her own big feelings more often. She connected with feelings of helplessness related to parenting, which masked grief and anger at her former partner and the way his addiction had affected their relationship. As she accepted and processed her feelings, she experienced more energy and hope. She practiced developing empathy for Brittany and setting boundaries with Marcus. After all, the healthy socialization of kids rests on caregivers’ distress tolerance and ability to enforce limits calmly and kindly while helping children regulate their own emotions.

Parenting Whiplash

My husband and I have three children, ranging from 13 to 21. We read all the books, worried about their self-esteem, and gave lots of praise. And with each of them, there came a time when their self-esteem was so positive that we had to shift gears. For example, during my son’s ninth birthday party, one of his friends asked if he could make a small tweak to the rules of the Nerf war they were about to have. My son said, “It’s my birthday, so I get to make the rules, and my plan is best.” He was clearly confident about his own ideas and felt empowered to lead others, but this social transaction involved sharing power and learning to compromise and negotiate with kindness and respect. It was time for us to help our son integrate more sensitivity to others into his sense of self—a process I like to call mitigation.

Many parents experience the same relational whiplash, the necessary but painful movement from cultivating self-centeredness in our children to cultivating other-centeredness. From the moment a new baby is placed in its parents’ arms, they learn the baby’s cries and coos. The baby is hungry; they feed her. The baby is wet; they change her. The baby wants comfort; they snuggle her. When an attuned, “good enough” parent meets a baby’s needs thousands of times, the child develops a core belief that the world is a relatively safe place, people are generally good, and their own needs will probably be met a lot of the time. But once these core beliefs are established, parents need to level-up and teach their kids that their perceived needs will not—and should not—be met all the time, in every instance. This is where boundaries come in, along with the distress tolerance they engender.

Parents often ask me how praise affects self-centeredness and other-centeredness. Should we be giving only unconditional praise, such as You’re amazing, you’re so funny, you’re so smart? Should we be giving only conditional or labeled praise, such as Thank you for using gentle hands with your brother, I love how quickly you put your dirty dishes away, I like the way you ask me before drinking the last of the milk?

We want our children to be confident, but we don’t want them to act like self-centered narcissists. To evolve a healthy sense of self, they need to receive the message I love you even when you don’t perform perfectly. They also need help moving out of their developmentally appropriate social selfishness before it becomes developmentally inappropriate. Conditional praise, like “I’m impressed that you cleared the table without being reminded,” can be a powerful tool to support the socialization process. A balanced approach involves offering both forms of praise.

One interesting finding has shown that parents’ inflated praise can deflate kids’ self-esteem. When parents say, “You did incredibly well in that soccer game” when, in fact, their child missed the ball half the game and was picking clovers for the other half, the child may sense the parents are overcompensating for their inadequacies, developing lower self-esteem as a result. It’s been hypothesized that this low self-esteem can then contribute to narcissism and a need to be propped up or praised constantly by others.

Unconditional regard combined with words, actions, and modeling focused on growth seems to support children’s self-esteem best while keeping them from getting mired in social selfishness. Parenting experts who source their guidance from attachment theory and humanistic models posit that simply reflecting and being with children’s emotionally difficult experiences is the most helpful approach when it comes to fostering a healthy sense of self. For example, a parent might note a desirable action a child has taken, but without attaching a positive or negative value judgment to it. This might sound like, “You brushed your teeth without my help,” or “It looks like you put in effort to finish your homework on time.”

Safe Boss, Nurturer, and Storykeeper

In my work with parents and children, I use TraumaPlay, a play therapy model for working with traumatized and attachment-disturbed children and their families. Although many different methods for supporting families in trouble are available, I’ve found TraumaPlay helpful when treating traumatized children. Grounded in attachment theory and neurobiology, this trauma-informed model invites the clinician to follow the child’s needs through a set of specific treatment goals. This provides a scaffold for play-based interventions that invite parents to be active participants in their child’s healing. Through modeling, psychoeducation, and experiential exercises, TraumaPlay therapists teach parents to embody three different roles: Safe Boss, Nurturer, and Storykeeper. Often, parents will be naturally good at one role while needing practice embodying the others.

Many parents are skilled nurturers but struggle with the challenges of setting limits with their children, whom they prefer seeing happy and not disgruntled or disappointed. Whether in a work or home environment, a Safe Boss is someone who gives clear directions, expresses genuine interest and pleasure in the accomplishments of those they lead, sets realistic expectations, articulates boundaries, and consistently gives levelheaded feedback. In the Safe Boss role, parents assess the needs of the whole family group and set limits by creating reliable routines and predictable responses. They handle challenges and allow or follow through with consequences in ways that keep the individual child and the collective in mind.

As Safe Bosses, parents learn to say “no.” Sometimes they say no because the needs of another are more important. Sometimes they say no because the object of the child’s desire is a want, not a need. Returning to Reyna and the hard work of parenting, a day will come when Marcus will miss his parkour lesson because his sister starts throwing up before they get in the car. A time will come when Brittany begs for yet another candy bar and Reyna withholds it from her. In these scenarios, Marcus is likely to be disappointed and Brittany frustrated. Both will have feelings about the boundaries Reyna sets in the Safe Boss role. Marcus may throw himself on the ground, kicking and pounding the floor with his fists while passersby gawk. Brittany may scream, “You’re the worst mom ever. I hate you!”

Hysterical crying, ear-piercing screams, and nonstop whining that sets your teeth on edge are hard to tolerate, even when you love your kid, have slept well the night before, and feel relaxed and calm. But to support children’s growth and development, adults need to find ways to interpret “bad” behaviors as signals of distress. This is where the complex task of fostering empathy in children comes into the picture. It’s not enough merely to be a Safe Boss: parents also need to nurture. This means they work on developing the emotional skills and attunement needed in the Nurturer role, improving their ability to read their child’s emotions, sense their true needs, remain nonreactive, provide support, and express delight in them.

The third role in the TraumaPlay model is Storykeeper. When a parent moves from being a Safe Boss or Nurturer into storykeeping, they focus on a distressing behavior—like Brittany’s screaming and throwing things because her brother took her toy and her mom dismissed it—and give context to the child’s experience. Storykeeping bridges the empathy gap. The parent puts themselves in their children’s shoes by feeling into their lived experience and helping them make coherent sense of whatever hard thing just happened.

“I can see you felt sad and mad when your brother took your favorite car,” Reyna might have said to Brittany when she’d settled down enough to be able to listen. “You needed mommy’s help, and it made you even madder when mommy didn’t get your car back.” She might tell Marcus, “When you saw your sister having so much fun with the toy car, you really wanted to play with it, so you took it away from her. Next time, can you ask her if you can have a turn playing with the car? If it’s too hard to ask, I’ll help you give it back and try again with your asking words.”

These narratives help children feel understood while clarifying a caregiver’s responsibilities in the Safe Boss role. They help children learn more about themselves, others, and how the world works. What gets in the way of parents being able to do this on a regular basis? Mostly, it’s their capacity to empathize with their children’s big feelings while keeping healthy boundaries—their own and the ones between their children. Parents can’t become Storykeepers when they’re emotionally flooded. Enter what in TraumaPlay is called the Cascade of Care. Picture champagne glasses stacked on top of one another: what gets poured into one glass will cascade into the others. This is a process by which a therapist embodies what “good enough” parenting can look like, transmitting this caring experience to clients so it then cascades into their children’s lives.

When Reyna became sympathetically activated in session and her nervous system triggered mine, I recognized her stress response. I became Safe Boss and Nurturer for her, coregulating her somatic intensity and helping her return to a felt sense of safety. We could then become curious about the factors contributing to her overwhelm and reactivity, leading her to say she felt “hate” toward her children. From there, I transitioned into the Storykeeper role, following the thread backward from the intensity happening in my office to her earliest experiences of this sort of rage and helplessness. Reyna and I threaded the needle backwards, exploring painful moments of helplessness in her marriage, and even further back, to when she was five years old and her mother would yell, “Why can’t you ever get things right?” or “You messed everything up!” whenever she made a mistake.

As I helped her make sense of her own story with more compassion, her reactions to her children made more sense. Reyna’s helplessness triggered rage and manifested first as self-hatred, then in an experience of hatred toward her children. Having made this important connection, we could get curious together about how helplessness showed up in her body and what she needed in those activated moments to honor those cues and take better care of herself, thereby taking better care of her children.

One of my favorite maxims is that you can only give what you receive. As we offer parents experiences of having their big feelings nonjudgmentally heard and understood, they can expand their capacity to do the same for their kids. The endgame is to nurture whole, healthy children who can sense big feelings in other people and even lean into another’s distress while feeling grounded and safe with themselves. If self-centeredness and disconnection is a modern plague, this process offers an empathy-building antidote that ripples outward in concentric circles.



Paris Goodyear-Brown

Paris Goodyear-Brown, LCSW, RPT-S, is the creator of TraumaPlay, a flexibly sequential play therapy model for treating trauma and attachment disturbances in family systems. She’s the executive director of the TraumaPlay Institute, the clinical director of Nurture House, an adjunct instructor of psychiatric mental health at Vanderbilt University, and an EMDRIA-approved EMDR consultant. She’s authored multiple chapters and articles as well as 12 books, including Parents as Partners in Child Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide and Big Behaviors in Small Containers.