My son is having trouble with his schoolwork. He says he is dumb, I tell him he is not, and he just gets more upset. My child complains because all his friends have iPods, X-Boxs and flat screen TV’s, but he doesn’t. Anything I say to him makes him roll his eyes and stomp away. For my daughter, everything is a major tragedy: her hair, her friends, her grades. How do I teach her to understand what is important in life?

Rav Yisrael Salanter, a great Rabbi from the 19th century, explained that a child whose toy boat breaks feels the same way a merchant does when his ship is sunk at sea with all his worldly goods. Children and teens feel very strongly about their problems in their world. It seems so inconsequential (it’s just a toy boat, it’s just one grade, it’s just a bad hair day) but it’s all-consuming to them. They don’t have the ability to work past their (seemingly) small difficulties; they cannot see the forest beyond the trees.

That’s where we come in; we can help them see the big picture.

How?

We need to fully enter our children’s world and for a moment, see things the way they do. We need to use empathy. Only when we use empathy do we help our children move past their problems and come up with their own solutions.

We may not realize it, but as parents we often deny our children’s feelings instead of listening and reflecting, two key ingredients in delivering empathy.

When a child says, “I’m hot,” a parent will often say, “It’s cold in here – keep that jacket on.” A child will say, “I hate my hair,” and her parent will say, with good intention, “Your hair is beautiful.” When a child is having difficulty with his schoolwork and says, “I stink at math,” a loving parent will say, “No you don’t; you’re very smart!” All of these statements are examples of how a parent unknowingly denies his or her child’s feelings.

Denial of feelings can be dismissive and tough: ”You don’t need an iPod, it’s too expensive.” But it can also be meant in a kind way, with the best of motives: “You have lots of friends and you learn so much, you wouldn’t even have time to use your iPod!” It can be an ill-timed lesson in morality: “IPods are for people who are self-involved, and having earphones in your ears can damage your hearing.”

But any way you slice it, it remains a denial of feelings and causes anger and frustration, and closes the channels of communication. The end result? Rolled eyes, terminated conversations, huffiness or shouting.

Think about the last time you had a rough day and told your friend about it, and she replied, “Oh it couldn’t have been so bad,” or, “You’re getting upset about nothing.” What you needed was empathy, not philosophy, advice or denial of your feelings.

Here are four excellent techniques that teach us how to deliver empathy. And you can use them in any relationship.

  1. Listen with your full attention (you can’t fake it) and use eye contact. Respond at intervals with vocal signs of attentiveness, such as making little listening noises (“Really? Wow.”) Don’t interrupt them when they are speaking; let them get it all out.

  2. Give their feelings a name: “You sound so: frustrated/upset/tired/annoyed/embarrassed,” or, “That must hurt.”

  3. Verbalize their fantasy wishes: “You wish you could have every toy in Toys ‘R Us!”; “You wish school was two days a week and the weekend was five days.”

  4. Use empathetic words, such as “so sad” or “too bad” and ask, “What are you going to do?”

These skills teach you to listen. They give children words with which to describe their inner realities and the strong emotions that they are experiencing.

To a child who is having trouble with school work, we can give his feelings a name: “You sound frustrated. This work is really getting to you.” Give him his wishes in fantasy: “You wish this subject came easier to you.” Empathize and ask him what he will do: “This is hard. What would you like to do?” He may come up with a productive response: “Maybe I will ask Levi to help me, he knows his stuff.”

When you first start using these skills, it feels awkward. But one you get the hang of it, you’ll see the daily power struggles with your children melt away. You will be amazed at how children take responsibility for their own behavior and are able to achieve a mindset where they can solve their own problems.

Based on techniques by Faber and Mazlish.