Last (for now!) in our series of posts about being child-centred, is ‘Empathy Before Action.’

Now, I’ve written a lot about empathy in the last couple of years, particularly unpacking what exactly empathy is, using Dr Teresa Wiseman’s break down. See those posts at the foot of this page to read more on this.

Though this post will address empathy, it will be less about what it is and more about when we need to prioritise it.

Essential ingredient

At the outset I want to strongly reiterate my view that of the many things we can employ to help troubled kids recover from what’s happened to them, empathy is, perhaps, the most important.

    • It validates their experience
    • It connects at a human level
    • It says, ‘I hear you and I care about this.’

Empathy should also pervade what we do. Everything we do.

Retaining that validation, connectedness and care is the ‘glue’ that helps build trust, ‘hold’ children whilst they work things through and supports them when things go awry.

The push to rush…

Because we all have things we need to get done, with children, we can tend to rush to complete these and forget empathy.

The very real pressures of too many ‘cases’, short intervention timescales, limited resources and too little time can push us to rush. We know this is isn’t ideal, but we nevertheless find ourselves under pressure to ‘get on with the real work.’ For example:

    • Completing assessments before we feel we really know the child
    • ‘Moving them on’ because they’re about to turn 16, 18 or whatever
    • Only being allocated 6, 8 or 12 sessions to get through the work

We’ve all been there.

It’s a genuinely tricky balance to know how much to push the pace of the work, in order to balance what we know is quicker than is ideal, but still allows us to get something useful done. I don’t imagine this dilemma is going to go away anytime soon.

So, what’s the answer?

Sequencing is key

I’ve been struck again recently by how important sequencing is. It is often less about what we do but when we do it.

OK, so what we do is important (obviously!) but getting the timing right is absolutely critical – as I’ve said before, a good intervention at the wrong time, is a bad intervention.

Our Trauma Recovery Model, and the work we’ve done testing it in practice, has established that focusing on behaviour – or on what looks like the obvious problem – can be a distraction from what’s really going on.

So, what is going on?

If behaviour is a symptom of the real issue – flowing from it, if you like – then understanding what’s actually happening underneath is crucial if we’re to help kids move on.

This is where empathy comes in. It’s about making a connection in such a way that the child feels heard and understood; ‘felt’ if you like. I think this is where the breakthrough often comes with kids – when someone makes that essential connection and things can move on. They need to know that we feel it, before they will let us help them fix it!

So before we rush to action, let’s pause a while and ask that more crucial underlying question – why is this behaviour happening and how must it feels to be the child behind the behaviour? How does it feel to live their life? If I felt like this, what would I want from someone trying to help me?

Final word

Working to see the world through the eyes of the child, understanding their reality and letting them know that we ‘get it’, is the essence of empathy, I think. And it is, arguably, where every good intervention starts.

In the end, empathy goes way beyond technique. It’s long been my view that when someone genuinely cares, something of this will come across to those we care for.

So, before we rush to do, let’s take time to empathise, to understand and to feel something of what the child is experiencing. THEN, and only then, is it time to act.

Sequencing is the key…

Previous related posts

– How to teach empathy to troubled teens – part 1…

How to teach empathy to troubled teens – part 2…

– Empathy 1 – What It Isn’t… (get the audio version of this post as part of the ‘Total Blog’ package on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 2 – What exactly is it?…  (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 3 – A child’s-eye view…  (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 4 – Being non-judgmental…  (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 5 – Understand another’s feelings… (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 6 – Communicate Our Understanding… (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)


*Wiseman, T. (1996) A Concept Analysis of Empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1996,23,1162-1167 – download.

Gordon, M. (2009) Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, The Experiment, New York – p.31 – learn more here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2020

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