Empathy – A Parent’s Ace Card
Empathy! Yes, I know what that is, I use it all the time!”
In my work as a parent coach and also a trainer of practitioners working with families and parents, this is a common response when I mention the word empathy. However, do we really know what empathy is and how powerful it can be in our relationships with our children (and in fact in all our relationships)?
When I looked up the meaning of the word “empathy” I found this: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
But can we truly “understand” the feelings of another? For me the difficulty I see is that we forget to stand in the other person’s shoes and see the situation from their emotional view point, and not our own – this is where the power of empathy lies. How many times have you started to share something that you are really upset about and get a response like “Oh yes, I know exactly how you feel…” cue them recounting their story leaving yours to be side-lined. Or perhaps you got a response “Poor you! How awful! What you should do is…”Again, there’s no empathy here; there’s a bit of sympathy and lots of trying to fix things! However, if you use empathy correctly, it has the power to heal, connect and transform relationships, making empathy a vital skill to learn as a parent. It’s fundamental to our parenting tool box.
At Family Links we see empathy as the ability to see something from the other person’s emotional point of view; trying to sense what it’s like to be them by stepping into their shoes. Not thinking about how we’d feel if the same thing were happening to ourselves. It means we have to stay emotionally neutral and also out of judgement. So you can see how tricky it might be, particularly where our children are concerned as it’s easy to get hooked in and respond emotionally. However, empathy does allow us to think about the feelings behind the behaviour without agreeing with the actual behaviour.
All of us feel angry, frustrated, lonely etc. at times, and this is the same for our children too. Children often act out feelings because they can’t put them into words – they might do this by being aggressive, tearful, shouting or becoming withdrawn, or even having a big tantrum because you won’t buy them an ice-cream after playgroup or because they weren’t picked for the football team. Being able to put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand their behaviour (not agree or condone it) means that we can parent assertively too! An empathic response to our child’s moods makes our relationship with them happier and closer and, of course, children who are treated with empathy and respect will learn to be empathic and respectful to others.
That’s all very well, but for some of us it might all sound a bit “soft and fluffy”. I certainly think about six or seven years ago my husband would have definitely been in this camp! Our youngest son is, let’s say, a little “feisty” and empathy has been a tool I’ve tried to use in my parenting with him. Examples of empathic responses I’d use with my son are: “You look very angry with me”; “It can be disappointing when you’re in the middle of a game and the toys need to be put away” or “You sound very cross about that”. Many times it has helped to stop a potential meltdown or defuse some strong feelings.
Originally, my husband’s parenting style was more authoritarian. A typical response might have been to say “stop making such a fuss about it” or “you’re so rude, I’m not listening to this anymore”. Those types of phrases can place blame or brush feelings aside that should be addressed. Over the years it’s been interesting to see how he has adopted a more empathic response towards me and the children how it’s made a big difference in our family.
Let’s look at it another way. Can you think of a situation where you turned to someone for support or advice and they failed to respect your feelings? Dismissed how you felt? Didn’t actually listen to you? How did you feel towards that person? Can you think of another time when someone responded truly empathically to you, really tuning into your feelings? Listened without interrupting or telling you what to do? How did you feel towards them? If we notice how helpful it can be for us when someone truly accepts the way we feel, then we will know that it will be similar for our children too.
That’s the theory, but what about in practise? There’s a whole language around empathy and sometimes it can be helpful just to have a starting point. So after listening to our child and trying to stay neutral emotionally ourselves, we can respond using open sentences beginning: “That seems”; “I wonder if”; “It can be hard when” or “You look”. Followed by suggesting how they might feel, then pausing and not going into “fix it mode”, (this is the powerful bit). Using this type of language opens up space for our children to think about their emotions and try to verbalise how they feel. By suggesting feelings our children might be experiencing we’re also helping develop their emotional vocabulary. We can follow it up with the second stage of offering a suggestion that might be helpful in that situation, but sometimes it’s not necessary.
So back to my husband – after 7 years or so he’s becoming pretty efficient at practising empathy even to the point that he will now say to me when I get frustrated with our children “It sounds like your frustrated with the kids! Remember Sharon, empathy is your ace card”!!!