Choosing Empathy: A Positive Approach to Building Better Behaviors 

Choosing Empathy: A Positive Approach to Building Better Behaviors 


As parents, we sometimes find ourselves dealing with challenging behaviors in our children that leave us feeling frazzled and exhausted.  Temper tantrums, homework refusal, and too much screen time are just a few examples of the behaviors parents sometimes face.  Parents of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and other neurological differences tend to face these challenges more often, and parents often feel unequipped to deal with such unintentional behaviors successfully.  Notably, children with ADHD often struggle with executive functioning, the brain skills needed to focus, organize, recall information, and control emotions.  This can make negative behaviors beyond a child’s control when they lack the tool kit needed to manage such challenges.  Choosing to approach these behaviors with empathy and understanding can help us to reframe those behaviors we find so frustrating and “frazzling” as our child’s way of asking for help. 

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person and enables us to ensure others feel validated.   For a parent, the ability to convey support for their child is crucial to establishing positive relationships.  For this reason, empathy can be a successful and positive tool to approach challenging behaviors.   

Empathy Tool-Kit for Parents: 

  • Take positive action by learning about your child’s ADHD or other learning differences. 
  • Make sure your child understands what your expectations or instructions are.  Be realistic, keep your language simple, and make potential goals reachable.  
  • If you are working on setting a particular behavior goal with your child, allow them to be part of the goal-setting process. 
  • Establish meaningful reinforcers for your child (e.g., your child gets to pick a favorite game to play with you, meal for dinner, or special 1:1 time). 
  • Help scaffold memory challenges with strategies such as pictures, notes, and gentle reminders to prompt your child what tool they can use in tough moments. 
  • When your child has trouble meeting the goal and becomes frustrated, remember the power of being calmly present in the moment and supporting your child.  Refrain from giving advice or using a lot of language in the heat of the moment.   

Merriam Sarcia Saunders, a marriage and family therapist specializing in ADHD, believes improving behavior in children with ADHD involves five key steps that incorporate empathy, understanding and praise.   

  1. Accept the fact that ADHD is physiological.  Negative behaviors are often beyond your child’s control. 
  2. Be a Detective, not a Judge.  Try to understand the root of the behavior- Does your child understand the task? Is the task too challenging? 
  3. PREP your child.  Create a calm moment to address your child, request good behavior, and praise effort. 
  4. PREP yourself.  Pause before you react, recharge, evaluate, and then proceed. 
  5. RE-MAP your parenting.  Understand your child wants to do well and praise your child for positive efforts. 

For example, if your child is refusing to stop playing video games, you can: 

  • Make sure your child knows when they should stop. 
  • Build in transition time for the next task. 
  • Use a visual aid or timer. 

Check out the additional strategies provided below on how you can use empathy with your child to build better behaviors. 

Showing Empathy for Neurodivergent Children: ADHD, Anxiety, Depression  

Parent Different: Raising a Neurodiverse Child in a Conventional World  

The Single Most Helpful Strategy in Raising Your Child With ADHD 

Boost Self Esteem and Empathy: ADHD Discipline Help For Parents  

Child Discipline: ADHD Behavior Techniques for Positive Parents  

Positive Parenting and ADHD: The Nurtured Heart Approach