Positive parenting educators and mental health therapists talk a lot about empathy. When when parents want to know how to respond when their kids are angry or anxious, I suggest responding with empathy first.
I tell parents to think of empathy as “finding the feeling” in what their child is saying or experiencing. If your child is upset, you could say, “You’re so mad that Sophie took the marker without asking!” When you respond with empathy, you help your child put their feelings into words and make them feel that you understand.
Many parents are good at responding with empathy when their child is a little sad or a little upset. Empathy gets a bit trickier when your child is in the thick of a giant meltdown! Parents often start to panic, thinking, “Why isn’t this working?” or “What am I doing wrong?”
Unfortunately, empathy is not a quick fix. Using empathy won’t magically stop a tantrum. Putting a feeling into words won’t stop your child from feeling the feeling.
Instead of seeing empathy as a means to a compliant, non-tantruming child, let’s look at empathy as joining in the experience with your child or connecting on an emotional level.
Here are some empathy tips:
Be Present: Focus less on finding the right words and more on feeling what your child is feeling. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Yes, I know. It’s hard. You don’t always share the same excitement over finding a cool rock at the park or the same devastation about missing the ice cream truck. Empathy doesn’t require agreeing with the other person’s feelings. It’s just imagining what it’s like for them in this moment.
It’s so hard when a friend says something mean!
I bet you didn’t know what to do when Johnny grabbed your truck!
Oh my, then what happened?
Wait for Calm: Empathy is just empty words when your child is at the height of an emotional experience. If your child is having a tantrum or meltdown, their brain is in flight or fight mode. It is not ready to receive or process information of any kind. Instead of trying to use words, show your support by helping them feel safe and calm. Use empathy before emotions reach their peak, and save the teaching for later when your child is calm.
Come here, honey, let’s snuggle!
I’m here. You’re safe.
It’s ok to cry.
Connect: Empathy is not a cure-all. It doesn’t solve problems or take away what someone is feeling. It’s good to acknowledge what your child may be feeling, but don’t expect repeating the feeling to bring relief. In fact, if you get the feeling right, your child’s emotions may blow up again, especially if they feel heard or understood at a deep emotional level. Your child needs help dealing with these big emotions you have identified.
Let’s count backward from 20 together.
I can see you’re upset. Let’s find a way to get out those big feelings!
Thanks for letting me know what’s bothering you.
If you’re trying to be empathetic with your kids but find yourself feeling frustrated and confused, look at your end goal. What are you trying to accomplish? A magic bullet to silence complaining or frustrated children? Or, connection with your kids? If you are striving for connection, chances are your empathy will be more genuine and effective, and your child will feel that their big feelings are valued.
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