Kids who have experienced trauma or neglect are likely to have experienced what is called “empathic failures.” Empathic failures are events in which a child’s caretaker failed to respond with empathy when he most needed it. These can range from small events – like when a child loses something important – to big events – like when parents are going through a divorce. In either case, a child who needs empathy and does not receive it may have a hard time connecting emotionally to adults, and they may in turn have a hard time empathizing with others.

 In working with kids who have experienced empathic failures, it is important to model and demonstrate empathy towards them. This looks like:

 1.      Mirror.

 Mirror what the child is saying by repeating verbatim what he said. “If I heard you correctly, you said…”

 2.      Validate.

 Validate the child’s experience. “That makes sense to me. I can see why you see it this way.”

 3.      Empathize.

 Give voice to the child’s emotions. “I guess that makes you feel…”

 It is important to help a child receive empathy before expecting a child to be able to give empathy. Some children are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of empathy in their home and school, and others may be lacking in this department. The best thing we can do is show empathy all day with all children.

This three-step process comes from Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. in the book “Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.” For more information about their work, visit

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