Empathy is a capacity that human beings are born with. A capacity not unlike communication, learning, and building relationship; and just like these capacities, if the environment does not provide consistent examples of what this looks AND feels like in a healthy way, then it cannot develop effectively.
In a world that uses shame, blame, punishment, and manipulation disguised as praise and rewards; true empathy is quickly forgotten, misunderstood, and undervalued. Though we acknowledge as adults the desperate need for someone to “just listen,” without fixing, belittling, silver lining, or dismissing our experiences and feelings; we struggle to give to our children that which we have not received and have not been supported to truly understand. It is the objective of this article to break down what empathy looks like within parenting and provide a starting point for an exploratory, curious, and healthy (and empathic) discussions for building parenting skills based in empathy.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the process of feeling with someone. It is not purely intellectual, nor is it purely emotional, but a marriage of the two. It is the understanding of the underlying need and subsequent feeling another person is experiencing and yet does not require us to have experienced the same set of circumstances. Nor does it require us to agree with any choice, belief, or action, for that would be judgmental. Empathy is accepting enough of your feelings so you may sit with someone else and feel theirs, too.
However, this is difficult in everyday life and made even more difficult in the realm of parenting. For so many reasons, parents can struggle with giving empathy to their children, especially when their children are raging, tantruming, whining, or acting aggressively. Some of these reasons may be:
- You did not receive empathy for your own big and challenging feelings as a child. You were sent to your room, punished with violence, or dismissed by being told to “suck it up,” “stop being a girl,” or “have a spoon of concrete” (a common Aussie colloquialism).
- Perhaps you were at the other end of the spectrum, and any time you experienced those big emotions your parents or carers did everything to “make it better.” Giving you food, distracting you, looking on the bright side and so on; always doing everything to avoid feeling the feeling.
- Another possibility is that you were blamed for your feelings, and/or taught to blame others. Being told it was your fault that your parents needed to punish you or receiving the proverbial response “I told you so.”
- Yet still, you may have experienced shaming. Privately or publicly (which is increasingly common in this technology-driven age). Called “naughty,” or having a parent say “people are looking at what a naughty boy/girl you are.”
All these experiences share not only the lack of empathy, which would have been a shared experience that previous generations have had (effectively explained in this presentation by Australian Psychologist Robin Grille); but also, that each attempt is focussed on behaviour modification. That is, they attempt to stop the behaviour and “teach” a child to be “good.” However, the problem with these approaches is that despite them being greatly different in their basic approach, the underlying message is the same “you are unacceptable unless you are happy, obedient, and conforming.”
How can we change this?
First, it is important to acknowledge where your feelings of resistance to providing empathy, especially in those more heated and straining moments, are coming from. When our reaction to an event is out of proportion to the situation, it is almost guaranteed to be personal (especially regarding parenting). Alfie Kohn has surmised it beautifully by asking “is it possible that what I just did or said to my child had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my upbringing that what’s really in their best interest?” After realising this it is important to then seek support to navigate and unpack what might be happening for you.
From here it becomes about practising the four empathic responses, laid out here, along your parenting journey. The more you practice, the more confident, and second nature like these responses become. Of course, you will not get it “perfect” every time, and sometimes you will make mistakes. That is ok, and that is normal, it isn’t about perfection but connection. As a part of child-parent relationship therapy parents are supported to understand that it isn’t about what you did, but about what you do after what you have done. In short, it is about the repair. For now, though, let us look at the four empathic responses:
This is the simplest response to explain, yet probably the most difficult to practice; because it goes back to that understanding that empathy is about being accepting enough of your feelings, so you may sit with someone else and feel theirs too.
When a child may be crying because they have the wrong coloured cup, because they wanted you to buy them that cookie, because the drive home to play with their new toy is too long, or any number of seemingly insignificant reasons; what is needed is quiet understanding. Maintaining eye contact, and observing their experience, it is getting down to their level, it is a gentle facial expression, and soft-touch (maybe a soft yet firm touch if you need to keep them safe, or stop them from hurting you or others). It is all the non-verbal aspects of what is called “active listening” in the world of psychology, counselling, and social work. It is seeing your child and the experience they are having and being willing to be in it with them, and not leaving them to navigate those feelings alone. It is primarily about the energy that you bring with you and convey at that moment; it is about your regulation.
“An escalated adult cannot de-escalate an escalated child.” – Mathew Portell (2019) Trauma-Informed Conference
Building on the above, it is then communicating what you see that your child is feeling, the why, and conveying verbal acceptance. It may be something like this “I know baby that you want the orange cup, and it is in the dishwasher and it can’t come out until the dishwasher is finished. You are so very upset. I know, it’s ok to be upset. I’m here.”
Notice it isn’t about “fixing,” or providing a solution. It isn’t about placating; because the underlying understanding is that it isn’t really about the cup. In the adult world, we may call these moments “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” for children it is the same. It simply seems less important from an adult’s frame of reference. However, these moments are incredibly important and the way we respond can support a child’s system wire for emotional wellbeing and, down the track, self-regulation. In an article title The Funnel and The Container: How Self-Regulation Develops this process is explained more fully.
It is important to note, however, that a great amount of words is not necessary. The above phrase is enough, and you may even prefer to simply say “I am here,” “I see your big feelings,” “I know, it all can be so much sometimes,” “It’s ok to cry,” and so on. Sitting in that silent space of Empathic Listening is ok too. Convey empathy is what is most important here.
Empathic choices are very different from punitive or manipulative choices that are often used by well-meaning parents to gain compliance, or even to try to give control. An extreme example of a punitive choice might be “you can choose to put your toys away, or you can choose for me to throw them in the bin.” This is not a real choice, this is an ultimatum, and no one responds well to ultimatums. Ultimately a power struggle where no one wins, these are not ideal. A child given an ultimatum does not learn the value of orderliness, or respect for personal belongings (in this case) but rather, the message that “when I am big, I can use threats to make people do what I want.” I do not believe parents intend for that to be the message, but it is one that is quite pervasive in our society none the less.
More palatable versions of this can be found in even the gentle/peaceful parenting circles. It might sound like this “I have asked the two of you to stop arguing in the car whilst I am driving, and I have explained why. If you choose to continue to argue you are choosing to not have any TV when we get home.” At face value this appears reasonable, this approach attempts to teach a child (presumably) that their actions have consequences and that they must be considerate of others. However, there is a flaw in this assumption; and that is that the behaviour is the problem. The behaviour is, in fact, a very important form of communication, one that communicates an underlying need. When we consider behaviour from this standpoint, a parent might ask themselves: “why might my child be behaving this way” and “what might this behaviour be giving them?” For any number of reasons the two siblings may be arguing, the elder may have been away on a camp and the younger missed them, the younger may have been receiving more attention the previous week because they were sick, the two may have been picked up from their grandparents and be full of sugar (which is not conducive to a calm emotional state). No matter the why, there is a need, and it is the need that must be met for the behaviour to truly dissipate. For more information on this, you might like to read The Needs Wheel
So, what does an Empathic choice look like? Well, it considers the questions above and provides two or three alternative behaviours that meet the underlying needs. In the case above, regarding the argument in the car, let us assume that the family is on their way home from a holiday and have been driving for an hour and a half. The next rest stop is still a half-hour away, and it is clear the children are arguing because they are tired and need to stretch or expel energy somehow. The parent could offer an Empathic Choice by saying “We are all feeling a bit tired and irritable aren’t we, and the next stop is another half an hour away. I can see that we need something though to help us get through; what would you both like to do. We could pull over and have a quick stretch, perhaps we could pick a song and all sing loud, or maybe you would like to play eye-spy?” The children can make a reasonable choice that supports their needs, and the arguing stops. Yes, one child may choose one option, and the other another. When offering the choices, it is wise to consider this, and be willing to do both; simply ordering them in a fair and manageable way. Maybe one song and then a round of eye-spy, for example.
Lastly, in some instances, Empathic Listening and Empathic Responding may need some support, and you may not know how to offer an Empathic Choice. Aggressive behaviours, for instance, can be one such a challenging scenario. Being faced with hitting, kicking, or biting can often activate more primal or personal responses from parents and require the above to be combined with the Empathic Limit. At its core, an Empathic Limit is about saying “Yes” to the feelings and “No” to the behaviour, but in a way that does not shame a child for acting in that way either.
To do this you may need to move slightly out of the way of your child so they cannot connect blows, or gently but firmly preventing them from hurting you or another and stating something like “You are needing to get you frustration out; I so get it. You feel upset because Jane took the toy you were playing with, I see that, and I am going to help you and keep you and Jane both safe by stopping the hitting. I won’t leave you with these big feelings, though, I’m here with you.”
If you child begins to cry (or if they already were) then staying in this place is what will likely be most supportive to their system (if you feel you have the emotional capacity to do so). Whilst holding the limit, e.g. preventing the hitting, and using continued Empathic Listening and Empathic Responding until your little person has dispelled their energy and processed the feelings.
In some cases, your child might not be crying though, and in those instances, an Empathic Choice might be more useful. Combing the Empathic Limit with the Empathic Choice might look a little like this: “You are really needing to get you frustration out; I so get it. You feel upset because Jane took the toy you were playing with, I see that, and I am going to help you and keep you and Jane both safe by stopping the hitting. I wonder if you would like to stomp your feet with me though, or maybe we could growl like angry lions, which do you think might help your body feel better?” The reason we focus on what “helps the body feel better” is because your child is not “choosing” to act that way. It is important to understand that when a child becomes aggressive, their sympathetic nervous system has been activated (this is the fight/flight response) and adrenalin is coursing through their body to assist them in running or fighting. This is not something they can control, but it is something that they need to “get out.”
In supporting our children with and Empathic Listening, Empathic Reflection, Empathic Limits, and Empathic Choices that respect their needs and/or biological processes, whilst maintaining relationship and connection; children not only feel seen and heard, they can accept their feelings with Empathy, learn appropriate ways to support those feelings and achieve deeper levels of healthy self-regulation and emotional wellness as they get older.