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What to Say to Your Kids to Build Empathy and Confidence

Many of the words that were considered acceptable for describing kids’ behavior in the 1970s and ’80s are now recognized as judgmental or damaging to self-esteem. They teach our kids to be hard on themselves and cause anxiety rather than confidence. 

If we want to raise empathetic kids who remain open-hearted, we need to be mindful of choosing respectful and empathetic words to talk with our kids about their behavior. We’re transitioning from an authoritarian parenting paradigm to connected parenting, and we need language that communicates clearly without judging or shaming.

Our children benefit immensely when we change our approach from labeling a child’s behavior and/or how it affects us, to instead, noticing what they’re struggling with or their emotional state. This latter approach offers more compassion, and in turn, helps our kids learn to be accepting and loving toward themselves and others.

Biology precedes behavior

When a child’s behavior is out of control, the nervous system is dysregulated. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) response is automatic, and behavior driven by the ANS happens subconsciously, before a person can consciously think about it first. So given that the dysregulation happens first, we need to address that before we can support our kids to change their behavior. 

Using language that identifies the nervous system state (e.g., fight, flight or freeze), their emotion, or what they’re struggling with (e.g., “you’re angry because you can’t have ice cream”), shows compassion and lets them know you understand. It shows you care about their perspective and struggle, and that you empathize. 

Nervous system language is also more neutral–it’s not inherently judgmental. It’s simply a statement about what’s happening for your child in that moment. (And we can humbly remember that we all get dysregulated sometimes.) Overall, using compassionate language helps prevent blaming the child and causing toxic shame.


Here are some examples of common judgmental words used to describe kids’ behavior. For each one, I’ve added explanations and alternative suggestions, but always attune to your child and choose words that fit your child’s needs and emotions.

Judgmental language: Tantrum

What’s going on:  Your child is in a fight/flight response.

Try instead:  “You’re really mad” or “You’re having some really big feelings right now” 


Judgmental language:  Unacceptable behavior

What’s going on:  Your child is probably in a fight/flight response. When talking with young children, instead of saying “fight/flight”, I often call it “big energy inside”.

Try instead:   “You’re having a hard time managing yourself right now. I can help you.” Or, for an older child, “You’re having a hard time right now.”

Or, “I can’t let you (hurt your brother/throw rocks on the playground/etc)”


Judgmental language:   Avoiding/Ignoring

What’s going on:   Sometimes this indicates a freeze response; the goal is to help them feel safe. Sometimes kids avoid, ignore, or “check out” when everything feels “too much”. This is especially true for sensitive kids. Sometimes they’re just deeply focused on something else.

Try Instead:  “Are you feeling overwhelmed?” or “Can you hear me?” or “I need your attention right now”–and then give them a moment to switch focus.


Judgmental language:   Defiant

What’s going on:  Often this indicates fight/flight, and feeling threatened. They feel a need to fend off the threat or protect themselves. Create safety and offer empathy. Soften your voice. Get curious.

Try Instead: “What do you need to feel better right now”, or, “Are you feeling worried/scared/mad?”, or, “Are you feeling like you need to make sure I’m really clear about your feelings and boundaries?”

TIP: Remember, it doesn’t mean you’ve intended to threaten them; it means that the automated part of their nervous system is detecting something it interprets as a threat. Your job is to provide safety so they can let down their guard, and you can connect and understand their need.


Judgmental language:   Aggressive

What’s going on:  When your child is aggressive, the nervous system is in fight/flight.

Try Instead:  “You’re feeling angry/scared; I’ll help you.”

Or, “You’re feeling unable to stop yourself right now; I’ll help you.”


Judgmental language:  Attention-seeking 

What’s going on:  Your child probably needs to connect. If you’re able to connect at that moment, great! If you can’t connect right this minute, accept their need with warmth, and invite them to connect at your soonest ability to do so–honoring your own needs as best you can, as well.

Try Instead: “Are you wanting to connect? I’d love that. Let’s…”  


Judgmental language:   Rude

What’s going on:  Their nervous system is in fight or flight, and they’re feeling a need to protect/defend themselves, and sometimes in their attempt to do that, they may lash out.

Try instead:  “You’re  angry”–said with empathy. When they’re ready, this can be followed with a genuine inquiry into what’s upsetting them. 


Judgmental language:  You’re not engaging

What’s going on:  Some possibilities are that they might be in a bit of fight/flight–feeling hurt or apprehensive, or overwhelmed and just need some space.

Try instead:  “You’re not feeling ready to connect right now.”


Three reminders

  • You’ll be able to use these most effectively with your child if you calm and regulate yourself before approaching them.
  • If this doesn’t come naturally, give yourself time. It’s a practice–not something you learn overnight.
  • These suggested alternatives are examples. Attune to your child and make an effort to deeply understand them. That’s where you’ll find potential for connection and change.

Children (and all people) are inherently good, and simply trying to get their needs  met. If they’re in a state of fight, flight or freeze, they’ll be unable to connect with you, change their behavior, or learn a healthy way of expressing and getting their needs met while they’re dysregulated. 

When we address their struggle and emotion without judgment, and let them know we care and we’ll support them, we can help them regulate and connect with them. We can then navigate the more difficult situations and begin to make changes.