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  • Dr Chris Moore

The E in PACE: Empathy

In the final post in this series of blogs about Dan Hughes’s caregiving formula of PACE, we’re going to look at the E for Empathy. This is the foundation of safe relationships. When we communicate empathy, we are truly connected to the feelings of another person. This is an essential component of providing trauma-informed care for children who have experienced abuse, neglect, loss and change.


How is Empathy different to Sympathy?


Sympathy can be likened to an innate response to a person’s emotional expression. When we are sympathetic, we feel for their sadness, disappointment or anger. It’s a communication of care and concern. During my training with Dan Hughes, he talked about how Empathy is both reflective and affective. We adopt the perspective of the other person and understand why they are thinking, feeling and reacting in a certain way. The affective or emotional component is about feeling the feelings of the other person and putting ourselves in their shoes. Therefore, Empathy is about “Feeling with”, while Sympathy is about “Feeling for”. Feeling someone’s suffering, as opposed to simply caring about it.


It’s an active and genuine desire to understand the emotion and validate the emotion without judgement. As Dr Bruce Perry says, we are biologically predisposed to be in relationships. Empathy enables us to relate better to others. It allows others to feel acknowledged and valued. It also opens the door for compromise, negotiation and solving problems. Through relationships, the child becomes curious about others. This is a developmental process, where infants are naturally inclined to copy our smiles, our waves and the times when we stick our tongue out. As the child grows older, he begins to develop “theory of mind” – the understanding that people are separate beings with different thoughts and feelings from his own.


Empathy and Trauma


When an important adult in a child’s life relates to them in a way which is rejecting, uncaring or inconsistent, this has implications for the development of Empathy. How can the child understand and tolerate the feelings of another, when they have lacked the experience of Empathy for their own inner experience? Kim Golding and Dan Hughes talk about how the focus turns inward when a child is struggling with toxic shame. When the priority is on self-protection and having one’s own needs met, this leaves little time for thinking about how others might be feeling.


Children who have been affected by past interactions which provoked anxiety, anger, terror or humiliation may initially struggle to accept Empathy from caregiving adults in school. They may not trust that you truly understand, or even care about, how they feel. Such an experience may be confusing for them, given the lack of Empathy in their previous relationships. It may even be seen as a method of control – paying lip service to the emotion in order to encourage the child to comply with an instruction or stop a behaviour.

If the child reacts negatively to our Empathy, this can increase our stress levels and restrict how open and engaged we are willing to be. This can lead to us using more quick fixes. We might become more prone to minimising the child’s feelings by saying “Oh it’s not that bad” or “You’ll soon forget all about it”. With the best of intentions, we may try to reassure the child by saying “Come on, of course he likes you!”. Such statements may temporarily divert the child from difficult emotions, but they won’t facilitate the change in self-perceptions which Empathy gradually enables. When responding to difficult behaviour, it can be easy to lead with discipline – to tell the child to stop doing something or state what they’re doing wrong. Without first connecting to the feelings behind the behaviour, we run the risk of the child complying out of fear or with underlying resentment.


Some examples of Empathy


We need to communicate Empathy with our eyes, our facial expression and our tone of voice. So when the child is visibly upset or angry, we can empathise certain parts of our statement and match the emotional expression.


Wow this is really hard for you right now”.


This is really bothering you SO much”.


You are SO upset about this! This is REALLY tough”.


Tapping into the inner emotional experience of a child who has experienced trauma can be very difficult. Even with detailed histories of their past, we can often have no idea of how a simple word, a look on our face or a gesture may remind them of a traumatic moment. We have to stay humble and recognise that our initial guess may be completely wrong. Therefore, we can start with general statements about the child’s emotional state.


You seem really worried about this”.


I can see that you’re angry at the moment”.


I think that trying this is a bit scary for you”.


We can follow up with more elaborate statements which wonder about the connections between the feeling and a specific situation. This mixes in the C of PACE – Curiosity.


It hurt so much when she didn’t ask you to play. You were probably thinking ‘Why did she do that?’ It was a real shock for you”.


You wanted to have another turn so badly. You were so excited about it and it’s so unfair that we ran out of time”.


It seems to you like he hates you. That must be really hard. I know you like him a lot, so this is pretty confusing.


We can also show Empathy for our own behaviour towards the child. This validates our impact on their inner experience through relationship.


I know it’s hard for you to hear what I’m saying”.


I can see how you think I’m being unfair and this is so annoying for you”.


Me saying ‘No’ has made you angry with me. I get why you don’t want to talk to me right now.


Look after your Empathy


James Coan uses a lovely analogy about how humans are the cheetahs of emotional regulation. A cheetah can run really fast, but not indefinitely. Similarly, we can cope with stress for a period of time and then our reserves are depleted. When our ability to regulate our emotions becomes exhausted, we need someone’s else’s brain to pick up the slack. This is why our own relationships are so important for managing the demands of working with children who have experienced trauma. Taking time to speak to a relative, a friend or a colleague can allow you to get some much-needed Empathy of your own. I mentioned in a previous blog about the importance of support networks in school, allowing for protected time to debrief after a tough day. Creating regular opportunities for relaxation and self-care will also help to relieve the emotional burden of trauma-informed care.


Look out for warning signs that your Empathy is running low. Are you feeling short-tempered or exhausted lately? Are you more frequently perceiving situations to be hopeless or pointless? Are you more prone to assigning blame? Are you focusing more on control and compliance? There may be other signs, but these are just some examples of when it is time to take a step back and reflect on how you are relating to the child. It’s important to note that Empathy does not mean that we are permitting or ignoring difficult and undesirable behaviour. We can set limits and enforce consequences. Empathy is about going the extra mile to acknowledge how hard it is for the child. It’s an experience rather than a technique. Ultimately, it’s about telling the child “I get it”.


Key References and Recommended Reading


· Golding, K.S. & Hughes, D.A. (2012). Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


· Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.


· Elliott, A. (2013). Why Can’t My Child Behave? Empathic Parenting Strategies that Work for Adoptive and Foster Families. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.




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