How’s your empathy?

How’s your empathy??

Empathy and how to help our children build empathy and act empathetically with others is getting a lot of attention from parents, educators, therapists and developmental scientists these days. And justifiably so. Children and teens who can interpret the feelings of others and interact with kindness, understanding and, when needed, compassion have better relationships and also feel better about themselves.

Empathy is the ability to experience the same emotions that someone else is experiencing. It typicallylittle girl with soul-filled expression emerges naturally, beginning in later infancy. When we talk about the importance of empathy, we’re really talking about the importance of empathetic concern and response. This is recognizing and acknowledging the needs of others and being concerned about their welfare.

I want to turn this issue around a bit today and ask you how empathetically you interact with your child. You almost surely have very tender feelings about your child and feel your child’s difficulties deeply. You probably hurt with your child when he breaks a toy, is rejected by a friend, fails a test, has a broken heart, feels badly about himself. We keenly feel our children’s physical, emotional and psychological difficulties. And usually want to fix them.

A more interesting question, is how do you respond to everyday events when you are dealing with your child’s feelings? Empathetic responses take the child’s perspective.

Consider these kinds of every day events.

Your child wants to play rather than do homework or a chore. How do you respond? Maybe it’s something like, “You can play after you get your work done.” That kind of response probably comes from a desire to teach responsibility or set standards or keep to house rules. Now suppose instead you said something like this. “Of course you want to play first. Playing is a lot of fun. Sometimes when we play, it’s hard to get back to doing things that have to get done.” Some follow-ons might be: “What if you play for half an hour and then you do homework?” Or, “I need you to empty the dishwasher now so I can make dinner. How about you do that then you can play for an hour?” Or, “You’ve got a test tomorrow. It’s not much fun to think about studying for it. Do you wish you didn’t have to study? …. How about breaking it up? You could study for 20 minutes, then you can play for 15 minutes. Then get back to studying for a while. Would you like to use a timer?” With an older child or teen you could let them know that they’ll remember more and be better prepared if they take breaks so invite them to take a 10 minute break every hour to move around or do something fun. As much as possible, encourage your child to help come up with ways to manage conflicting needs.

Your child wants to have ice cream before dinner. Do you respond by saying, “No. You know you can’t have snacks or sweets before dinner.” An empathetic response would be along these lines: “Yeah, of course you’d like ice cream. It’s good! But when we eat something sweet before dinner, our bodies don’t want other kinds of food. So that’s why we eat ice cream after dinner. Why don’t you decide which flavor you want tonight after dinner.”

Empathetic responding takes into account the child’s perspective and offers support and guidance for behavior. It doesn’t mean not offering guidance. It is grounded in recognizing and acknowledging your child’s feelings and desires.

So why is this important? Well first, you can’t teach empathy if you’re not acting with empathy yourself. In addition, it validates and respects your child’s needs and emotions, which helps your child understand how he or she is feeling. It encourages your child to build skills of self regulation, the executive function that enables us to monitor and control our behavior. It helps your child integrate information from emotional and cognitive sources, thinking about how to handle feelings and learning to make good choices. It builds resilience and positivity – feeling comfortable with feelings and gaining a sense that one can bounce back.

You may want to reflect on a couple of recent interactions you’ve had with your child and think about whether or not you acknowledged your child’s perspective and responded with empathy. If you did, take that in, feel happy about it, and remind yourself that those are good kinds of interactions to have. If you didn’t, imagine ways you might have reacted more empathetically and use those ideas to guide future interactions. Then remember to notice when you react with more empathy and take it in.

Responding to your child with empathy is really very skillful and loving. It is also related to two of our central insights or guiding principles, which you may like to read or re-read: The Key Insight and Interact Respectfully.

~ Anne Dunlea ~





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