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Empathy: Foundation of emotional health

"When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened. A parent's sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child's plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality." - Haim Ginott

I see parents and children make breakthroughs every day.  And guess what makes the most difference?  Empathy.  If we can actually see things from our child's perspective, everything changes.  Not that we let our child do whatever he wants just because we understand why he wants to.  But once we understand, we can intervene so that our child feels understood, and help him meet the needs that he was trying to meet all along, from connection to mastery to feeling valued.

Photo: Phil CantorEmpathy is more than the foundation of emotional intelligence; it’s the foundation of effective parenting, according to John Gottman, the author of Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child.  Why? Because it’s essential to your ability to understand your child and connect with her.  Because it will prevent you from visiting on your child all the issues from your own childhood.  And because without it, your child simply won’t feel loved, no matter how much you love her.

Empathy is often defined as seeing things from the other person’s point of view. But empathy is actually a physical event, controlled by the insula in our right brain. The structure of the right brain is formed during the first two years of life, before your baby becomes verbal.  Scientists suspect that the right brain is the orchestrator of intimacy.  The insula connects the brain with the heart, digestive organs, and skin.  So when our heart leaps, or our stomach turns, or our skin crawls, the insula is sending us a message.  And when we feel deep empathy, we feel it in our bodies. That means a more accurate definition of empathy is “feeling” from the other person’s point of view.

When a parent bestows the gift of empathy on a child, that visceral connection changes everything.  Empathy strengthens the relationship bond. Empathy helps the child to feel understood, less alone with her pain and suffering. Empathy heals.  And the experience of empathy teaches the little one about the deepest ways that humans connect, providing her with a launching pad for every future relationship.

How do children develop empathy?  It happens naturally, as part of healthy emotional development, as long as children experience empathy from their caretakers. That's why parenting with empathy is a double gift to your child:  In addition to your empathy helping him learn to manage his emotions, experiencing your empathy will also help him to develop empathy for others. This giving of empathy is also a gift to you, because children who feel your empathy are much more cooperative in accepting your guidance.  Translation:  It makes parenting a lot easier!

But most parents find the idea of parenting with empathy anxiety-producing.  How exactly do you “do” it?

You already know. Every time you say, “I know how you feel” or “Looks like you had a hard day,” you’re being empathic.  Every time you rise above your own feelings to see things from your child’s point of view, that’s empathy.

Sounds simple, right?  Then why is empathy so powerful?  Imagine empathy as a mirror that you hold up to your child. Your acknowledgment of what he’s feeling helps him to recognize and accept his own feelings, which is what allows them to resolve.

Humans are creatures of passion. Emotions are constantly arising within us, influencing our moods and actions, and then passing away.  Think of the strongest emotions you’ve felt in the past month, and then imagine how powerful your child’s emotions are, given his inexperience and intellectual immaturity. Kids are swept with passionate feelings many times a day. They need their parents to help them learn to navigate this world of emotion, so that they don’t get swamped by its intensity. Most of the time, when children (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. We don’t have to act on them, or even to like them, merely to acknowledge their presence.

Repressed feelings, on the other hand, don't fade away, as feelings do that have been acknowledged. Repressed feelings are trapped and looking for a way out. Because they aren't under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a preschooler socks her sister, or a seven year old has nightmares, or an eleven year develops a nervous tic.

Our acceptance of his emotions teaches our child that his emotional life is not dangerous, is not shameful, and in fact is universal and manageable.  Everyone has felt this, there’s even a name for it!  He feels understood and accepted. He learns that he isn’t alone to cope with the crush of his powerful emotions.

What Empathy Isn’t:

Permissiveness. You can (and should) set limits as necessary. And then acknowledge his unhappiness about those limits. Don't be defensive.  It's important to your child that you be able to tolerate his disappointment and anger.

Solving the problem. The point is to let him get past his upset so that he can begin to think about solutions himself, not to solve it for him. When he expresses his feelings about something, you'll want to listen and acknowledge, rather than jumping in with solutions.  That means you'll have to manage your own anxiety about the issue.

Agreeing. Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them. You are showing him you understand, nothing more, and nothing less. And if you’ve ever felt understood, you understand just how great a gift this is.

Probing. "Tell me how you feel" is not empathy.  Empathy is mirroring whatever she's showing you.

Trying to change the feeling or cheer the person up. I promise you, empathizing with the bad feeling is the fastest way to let it dissipate. Arguing her out of the bad feeling just pushes it under to resurface later. Once she has a chance to notice, accept, and maybe express the feeling, she will feel ready for "cheering up" in the sense of a change of scene and topic. And you've given her the message that ALL of her is acceptable, including her yucky feelings.

Arguing with the feeling. That just invalidates him.

What Empathy Is:

Listening without the pressure to solve anything.  Don't take it personally. Breathe. Detach.

Acknowledging and Reflecting. "You sure are angry at your brother” or “You seem worried about the field trip today."

Resonating.  Match your reaction with his mood. Being a bit downcast because his team lost the soccer game doesn't merit a reaction from you as if someone had died. Similarly, mechanically parroting "It can be hard when your boyfriend splits up with you" is likely to evoke hysteric rage from your teen.

 

For More on Empathy: When Empathy Doesn't "Work"


Recommended Resources:

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, is one of my all-time favorite parenting books, and extremely helpful hands-on coaching for putting empathy into practice.