Empathy. How it can help you and your child
Empathy is defined as the following: The ability to sense another person’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what that person may be thinking or feeling.
When we choose to interact with someone empathically, we ‘walk in their shoes,’ for that moment and reflect back to them, in a statement, the feelings we believe they are expressing. Sometimes, we will get the assumption of their feelings and emotions wrong, and that is perfectly acceptable. They will correct us if they choose too.
Communicating empathically is frequently underused or not well understood. Parents often respond to their child by asking questions like “Why are you crying”or “What’s wrong with you.”
Parents can fall into the trap of expressing their own feelings in the hope of fixing the problem by saying things like “I don’t have time for this, I am getting angry now.”
When we ask questions or express our own feelings to children it usually makes themhesitant to express themselves, and leaves those pent-up emotions bottled-up inside of them, with no outlet for discharge.
Empathic statements send a message to your child thatthey are accepted, understood and respected. Communicating empathically develops a child’s self-worth and confidence. They feel heard, acknowledged, and most importantly their feelings are validated. This can be hard for some parents who may struggle with accepting their child’s emotion because they don’t understand why they are feeling that way. Parents tend to take their past history, personal difficulties, learned attitudes and values to their parenting approach.
Scenario:John is a 5-year-old boy who is terrified of sliding down the big slippery dip at the indoor playground. John will feel a lot more safe, secure and accepted if his parents are able to validate his “real” feelings of fear.
Parents positive empathetic response:“John, you are really worried about sliding down that slippery dip.” I am here, and you are very safe. You can choose if you want to slide down the slippery dip or not.”
Commonly, parents will respond with “You’re not scared, it’s not that far, there’s nothing to be frightened of.”
The problem with this statement is the child’s feelings of fear are very real and when a parent dismisses their feelings, the child is left feeling unsafe, unsupported and misunderstood.
A genuinely empathic statement is often all a child needs in that moment to feel better and manage their big emotions. This unconditional love and acceptance can be the turning point for a change in behaviour or puts an end to a potential tantrum or meltdown.
Empathetically reflecting back, the emotions and behaviours you observe allows a child to organise their feelings and make sense of them. Empathy is a not a trick to control somebody.
Empathy is making a statement about what you think your child is feeling by making really close observations at what they are doing and reflecting that back. It is valuable communication tool, if you notice that “big emotions”are building-up within your child.
Empathic reflection is a way of communicating with children whetherthey are behaving in a calm, kind and cooperative way, or when they are behaving in an angry, upset, combative or uncooperative way.
Frequently, parents might use judgemental statements like:
“You have been a good boy today” or “Sam hasn’t been naughty all day.” Children are not always able to fully understand what “good, bad or naughty” means. Instead, using empathic statements to describe specific behaviours and emotions sends the message:
“I see you, I hear you, I care and I understand you.”
- Sam, I can see that you’re feeling really scared right now.
- I know that’s really hard for you.
- I understand, that you would rather things bedifferent, but this is the decision I have made.
- Sounds like you were really happy when you won that game.
- You’re feeling very proud thatyou have finished the assignment.
- That was really helpful for you to do that. Thank you.
- You’re so excited because you got invited to the party.
- You’re angry with me because I said you had to stop playing on the iPad, but the time limit is up for iPad play today.
- You really want your brother to play with you, sometimes you find it hard to play on your own.
- You focused really hard on that test. You can be proud of your efforts.
- I know that was a chore you don’t like very much. I appreciate the effort you put into it.
- You look worried. Would you like to talk to me?
- Everybody feels upset sometimes. It’salright to be mad or sad. I’m right here if you want a hug.
- Hey, nothing is going right for you today.
- You want more lollies?I hear you. You will need to choose something healthy to eat.
- You were so kind to your sister, helping her find her doll.
Importantly, communicating empathically does not mean compromising on limits and boundaries.Empathy is effective when a child is asking for something that you cannot give or choose not to allow, orthe child istelling you something that you don’t agree with. It is important to identify and acknowledge their feelings, likes and wants without abandoning rules or plans.
Examples are as follows:
- I can see you are really angry with me, but the rule is no eating biscuits before dinner.
- You really wanted to go to the park this afternoon, but I can’t take you today. I’m sorry. We may be able to go tomorrow.
- You were so angry with your brother, that you hit him. Hitting is never okay. The rule is to use gentle hands.
- You’re frustrated at that boy, because of what he just said to you, but it’s not okay to scream at him like that.
These examples send the message that I am listening to you, I understand that you are angry, sad, mad and disappointed, but these are the rules or values we try to live by. As tough as it can be it is very important for parents to remain non-reactive and calm in the face of conflict and challenging interactions.
Stan Ferguson is a Family Therapist and Author of “What Parents Need to Know About Children.”
When we give our children our interest and attention without evaluation, we give them the greatest gift we will ever give them. Because our attention, is more than anything else they are likely to receive from us, lets them know how valuable and worthwhile they are. They have captured our interest, they have our full undivided attention; they can sense our enjoyment, not of who they could or should be, but who they really are (Ferguson, 2000, p15).