I use the word “empathy” a lot when I’m talking about parenting. Sometimes I forget it might not be entirely clear exactly what is meant by using empathy when communicating with children. When you hear or read that children need empathy and that parents can help resolve conflicts and bridge connections with empathy, what do you think? Do you know right away what to do or how to respond?
As Brene Brown so succinctly says, “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” It is what’s needed when a child feels bad, struggles emotionally, or has made a mistake. What children don’t need in those moments is additional shame tacked on to their mistakes and unpleasant feelings to make them feel worse or unlovable. What children do need is empathy to see them through those moments. Empathy to reinforce your relationship. Empathy to help regulate brain chemistry; to assure a child, “The way you feel is normal. You’re normal.” Empathy to provide validation. “You have a right to feel that way.” Empathy to help a child get on the road to self-acceptance and self-love. “You may have made a mistake, but you are not a mistake.”
Here are five things you can do that will help you respond to a hurting child with empathy:
1. Take your child’s perspective. See the world through his eyes. His problems might seem trivial to you, but try to see them as he does. Broken crayons, lost toys, stuck zippers, or nightly clean-up time mean more to your child in his world than they do to you in yours.
2. Refrain from judgment. Yes, you may disagree with your child. You may think she was “wrong” for what she did, said, or felt during the conflict she had at school that day, but put that aside for now. Your child doesn’t need your judgment, she needs to be able to impart her own judgment. Help her do that by focusing on her feelings regarding what happened.
3. Communicate your understanding of your child’s feelings. This can be a glance, a nod, a knowing look. It’s kindness in the eyes and an “I get it” arm-wrap. It can be words, sure, but above all it’s a message. It’s a message that you understand because you’ve also had similar moments and similar feelings. Let him know you are here as his equal in this moment.
4. Stop before you say BUT. “Yes, you got into an argument with your friend. That happens. He got angry; your feelings were hurt. You’re very upset. BUT, you still should not have hit him…BUT that’s no reason to quit the game…BUT you need to learn how to control your temper.” It’s that last part that needs leaving off–that’s not part of empathy. Empathy is just sitting with the feelings for a bit. That might be really hard! It might feel unfinished. It might feel awkward to stop at, “You were really embarrassed.” and not add on some kind of resolution or suggestion. Don’t go there though…not yet.
5. Instead, try AND. After a period of empathic listening and probably plenty of tears, you can move on.
“…and your friend got hurt.”
“…and now what should we do?”
“…and what if this happens again?”
“…and is there something that will help you in the future?”
“…and is there a way to fix this mistake?”
“…and is there a way I can help you?”
Only after you have helped your child process her feelings through validation and understanding will she be able to move on to problem solving and the “what-to-do-now”s.
When we raise our children with regular expressions of empathy, they will learn through experience just what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like, and they will, in turn be able to give it to others.