Parenting: The Art of Empathy

Listen to your children like you do your girlfriends. Instead of jumping into offer advice or dish out punishment, try using empathy instead. Author Maggie Stevens says it is the strategy successful parents choose.

What is empathy? Empathy is the cornerstone for love. Empathy is generally conceived as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand their feelings and feel them yourself. Empathy often gets confused with sympathy, but it is not the same thing.

Empathy does not always come naturally to the human heart. Nor does it always come easily to parents. Many parents struggle with how to parent and love unconditionally. The ability to give empathy starts with doing that for yourself in the form of self-compassion. Learning to tune into your own feeling and acknowledge those will help you be able to do the same for your own children. If raised in a narcissistic family, this is a skill that you probably never learned. The parents that know how to empathize with their children are the ones having the greatest success in their parenting. Empathizing with your child is feeling what they are feeling and acknowledging those feelings. You do not have to agree with them, but you are giving moral support to their feelings and the right for the feelings to exist. To do this you must put aside your own thoughts and feelings for the moment. You need to try and understand where your child is coming from and why.

Instead of empathizing most of us as parents try to solve the problem, or give directions or advice. The most common reaction is a parent who gets angry or mad at their children for having feelings.

Try this empathy exercise:
Identify the feelings your child is experiencing: I hear that you are angry? You are feeling sad? I can tell you are upset over this?
Try to validate your child in some way. ? I am sorry you feel that way? It’s too bad you had to go through that? I’m glad you told me?

Example of toddler:
My three-year-old grandson asked for candy before dinner. I said, “No, we can have some after dinner. In typical 3 year old behavior he said, “I hate you, Grandma.” Now, I know he doesn’t hate me. He was angry that I wouldn’t give him candy right then. My empathy response was, “Pumpkin, I know you don’t hate Grandma, but you are mad right now because you want some candy. I understand that. I want candy too right now, but we have to wait until after dinner. It is ok to be mad and I am glad you told me.” My grandson needed to feel validated and acknowledged and then he was fine. The temptation is to get angry back at the child and punish, which only makes the child bottle up the feelings. Your anger or punishment will make the situation worse and feelings will escalate.

Example of teen:
An angry teen might call her mother a derogatory name because she has an early curfew. At the same time, she can acknowledge the feeling that the child is upset. It is surprising to parents, the first time they do this, how effective it is in deflating kids’ balloons of anger. The child can often become more reasonable because she has been seen and heard. She has been given a voice.

When my son was about 14 years old, he came home from school one day very angry and began throwing things around in a huff. When he got to the kitchen he threw his backpack across the table spilling a glass of juice.. My first instinct was to tell him to knock it off and go to his room, but I said, “Honey something is terribly wrong. You are very angry. Let’s talk about what is wrong.” This immediately deflated the big red balloon of anger and he was able to express his feelings of being upset with his sister for something I can’t really remember. I know now and knew then, that if I had sent him to his room or immediately punished him, his behavior would have escalated and we probably would never have gotten to the true feelings. Whatever he was angry about was much less important than acknowledging his feelings about it at the moment. He got to have a voice and be heard, and I was rewarded by no more flying backpacks!

Not only are you giving the greatest gift to your child when you use empathy, but you are modeling how to do it. Empathy is a skill worth learning and a gift that keeps on giving.

For more information visit Maggie at www.parentfix.comand to hear a podcast of Maggie speaking on parenting visit: