Aha! Parenting Blog

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When Empathy Doesn't "Work"

"I had just read Dr. Laura’s blog about staying calm and acknowledging his desires. When the screaming and stomping began, I stopped what I was doing and sat down next to my three year old. I made eye contact, listened to his complaint and did not let the screaming anger me; I then calmly explained that I hear him. I know cheesy poofs are so tasty and I love them too but he will have to wait half an hour until dinnertime. He blubbered briefly, collapsed into my arms for a minute and then went to play with his toys. My husband congratulated me on keeping my cool.  The best part? He was perfectly pleasant the rest of the evening. Wow!" – Aimee

When parents begin using gentle guidance,  they're often amazed by how well empathy "works" to calm their child.  For most people, just having our views and feelings acknowledged makes us feel better, so we're more cooperative.  So once parents get past their fear of "agreeing" with their child's "negative emotions" -- empathy doesn't mean you agree -- they quickly learn to empathize when their child is having a hard time:

  • "Nothing's going right for you today, huh?"
  • "You wish you could have ice cream now, I hear you."
  • "You are very mad at me!"

In fact, empathy is so effective in reconnecting with our upset child and helping her calm down that it takes us by surprise when it "doesn't work."

But empathy isn't a trick to control the other person.  It's a means of connection, and of helping our child process emotion.  So when empathy doesn't "work," consider whether you're really connecting, and whether you're helping your child with her emotions.

Here are the problems I hear most often from parents about "using" empathy:

1. "Empathy makes my child cry harder." Yes, when we validate kids' feelings, the emotions do usually intensify. But we aren't creating those bad feelings. They're in there anyway. Think about a time when you had some big feelings locked up inside -- maybe something bad happened. You were holding it together. Then someone arrived with whom you felt safe, and they hugged you or said something compassionate, and you burst into tears. So when kids have big feelings and we empathize, they do get more in touch with the feelings. But that's a good thing. Because once they feel those emotions, the emotions evaporate. That's how emotions work.

2. "Empathy doesn't stop the tantrum."  Once your child is swept into "fight or flight" words don't help.  So instead of labeling emotion, communicate safety so your child can show you all those feelings. The fewer words the better, just enough so she hears your compassion and knows you're standing by with a hug. Empathy won't stop the tantrum, but it will help your child let all those feelings up and out. That's what's healing.

3. "I keep repeating 'You are very sad and frustrated'  but they get mad and tell me not to say it."  How we acknowledge feelings depends on how old the other person is.  With an angry toddler, you might get down on his level and say "You're so mad!"  The toddler is often reassured: Mom doesn't think it's an emergency; there's even a name for this tidal wave that's swamping him. 

But as kids get older, telling them what they feel makes them angrier. Like most of us, they don't want to be analyzed or manipulated, they want to know you see their side of things. Imagine if you were upset and your partner just kept repeating "You are very sad and frustrated!"

So instead of labeling the emotion, try really really understanding and empathizing with his perspective: "Oh, Sweetie...how disappointing to see something you want so badly and have me say No...  I hear how much you want it....I wish I could say Yes, but not today."

As kids grow, a simple "Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry it's so hard" or even just "Mmmm.... Oh, no.....My goodness!" will get your empathy across.

And of course, while your child is in the middle of the tantrum, you don't need to tell them how sad and mad they are. The only thing they need to know is that they're safe, and you're ready with a hug when they're ready.

4. "I empathize with the emotions, but then she's still upset about it."  Empathy helps us see our child's view and reconnect with her. And sometimes that's enough to defuse her emotions. But often we need to go a step further, and help her solve the problem.

"You're so upset that your little sister keeps knocking down your tower. Let's find a place for you to build that is out of her reach."

Sometimes she needs our support to solve it herself:

"You're so mad at your brother. I think he needs to hear how you feel. Let's go find your brother, and I will stay with you while you tell him."

And sometimes she simply can't have what she wants, but you can give her what she wants with a wish:

"Do you want me to write this here on your birthday list so when it comes time we won't forget about it?"

Sometimes, though, wish fulfillment isn't enough and there's no solving the problem. The disappointment is so great -- or it triggers some earlier hurt that's still lurking and waiting to be expressed -- that only tears will do. In that case, the empathy "worked" so your child felt safe enough to show you his upset.  That's how kids build resilience -- they feel safe enough with you to let themselves feel their disappointment fully -- and they learn they can come out on the other side feeling ok. He's crying?  That's a GOOD thing.

5.  "I say 'You are mad but we don't hit' and he hits again ten minutes later."  If your message isn't getting through, it's usually because your child needs more help with his emotions than your empathy is giving him. 

Sometimes when we use the word "but" kids don't feel their feelings are really being acknowledged. You might see if there's a difference when you say "You are really mad, aren't you? AND we don't hit." Or sometimes your tone of voice makes a tremendous difference -- parroting the words doesn't actually help you connect.

But the big reason that empathic reminders don't prevent more hitting is that you simply can't expect "talk" of any kind to solve the problem. Kids who hit have big fear locked inside. They need you to create safety and set a compassionate limit so they can cry and show you that fear. Only then does hitting usually stop. ( Want more pointers on how to do help kids with big emotions? Here's a whole post for you.)

In fact, empathy ALWAYS works to reconnect and help with emotions. (Sometimes that means the emotions come gushing out, which is ultimately healing.) So if your empathy doesn't seem to be "working," maybe words are getting in your way. Stop trying to come up with the right words. Instead, imagine yourself as a child feeling what your son or daughter is feeling at this moment. What do you wish your parent would do right now to love you through this?  Do that.

***

For more on empathy:

Empathy: Foundation of emotional health


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