Are You an Empathic Parent?
If your child walks in the door with her shoulders drooping and her face forlorn do you say something like “You look sad. Come in and tell me what happened.”
Or if your child is stomping around do you say “You seem upset. Your feelings are important to me. Let’s talk.” Or do you tell your child to “Change your attitude, buddy!”
Perhaps you feel uncomfortable talking about feelings. You may have grown up in a home where it was better to keep a stiff upper lip. Or if you were upset you were told to go to your room. In other words, your parents probably didn’t teach you how to express your feelings in a healthy way. You were probably taught to stuff your feelings, especially “negative” ones.
The decision you need to make is, “Do I want to teach my kids to stuff their feelings or do I want to take the time to teach them how to talk about their feelings?”
There are lots of benefits to being an “empathic” parent i.e. one who helps a child name a feeling, listens carefully and repeats back what the child is saying while striving to understand the child’s point of view.
The most important reason is that you and your child will be closer. Every person in the world longs to feel understood by another and wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were that person for your child? Listening for feelings is the best way to keep your “attachment” to your child tight.
By modeling empathy you are teaching your child to care for other people, to be a good listener, to be understanding, to have compassion and to express feelings in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone or anything.
Your child is going to get better at managing his/her own feelings and will be more sensitive to the impact his/her behavior has on other people. (Children under the age of seven typically don’t have a lot of empathy, but you can still begin the teaching process.)
Often times using empathy can diffuse a potentially explosive exchange. If your child notes that you’re leading with empathy and trying to understand his/her point of view, s/he may reach out for the olive branch of understanding rather than escalating the exchange. You will also remain calmer if you’re listening with your heart.
A three-step process for using empathy and building understanding that I recommend is from the “EQ for Families” family education workshop at www.6seconds.org.
The VIE process has three steps:
1) Validate: Acknowledge the feeling(s), help the person know s/he’s “been heard.”
2) Inventory: Identify what happened and what choices have been made.
3) Expand: Develop multiple options of what to do next.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say that you have another family over and one of the children tells you that your 4-year-old has just hit his brother. You certainly don’t want her to hit anyone, so a time out would be a viable discipline option, but instead of doing that, what if you tried leading with empathy?
Parent: “Tell me what happened.”
Child: “The three of them were playing basketball and they wouldn’t let me play.”
Parent: “You were feeling left out?”
Child: “Yes! I can’t reach the hoop, so I was bored and left out. I wanted to play, too!”
Parent: “You wish they would play with you, too, and you felt left out.”
Parent: “It’s hard to watch others playing and having fun and you’re left out.”
Parent: “Do you think hitting Charlie was a good solution to the problem of feeling left out?”
Parent: “I agree. Hitting hurts people. In our family, we use words instead of fists to solve problems.”
Child: “I know.”
Parent: “Let’s think of what other choices you had.”
Brainstorm together: play alone; find a game the four of you can play together; stay with the adults; tell them how you’re feeling; get adult help.
Parent: “What solution would you like to pick?”
Child: “Will you come with and help me talk to them?”
Parent: “Sure. Would you also be willing to do something to let Charlie know that you’re sorry that you hit him?”
So, what has your child learned?
a) She can talk to you about her feelings.
b) Her feelings now have a name.
c) You understand what happened.
d) That hitting is wrong.
e) That you can talk out a problem and find solutions.
If you’re going to use empathy, here are a few guidelines.
1) Remain positive. Don’t criticize the child.
2) Don’t reassure the child by saying, “It doesn’t matter. It will be OK.” Let the child reach his/her own conclusion.
3) Don’t attempt to solve the child’s problem for him. “I know just what you can do!”
4) Don’t punish the child for having angry/sad feelings by saying, “You go to your room until you can change your attitude!”
5) Don’t tell the child how s//he should feel or criticize the feelings she expressed by saying “You’re this upset about THAT?”
Instead, help the child name the feeling, explore what happened and develop next steps that could be helpful to the child.
Try using empathy at least once a day and your child will experience hundreds of times when you have listened with your heart and tried to connect with him/her on an emotional level. Think of how powerful this experience will be for both of you.
Note: John Gottman is one of the leading researchers in this area. He’s written a book called, “The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” which is a great resource. Another good book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More that IQ” by Daniel Goleman. You can also purchase my “EQ: Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child” audio class at: http://www.getparentinghelpnow.com/EQAudio.htm