When in doubt, empathy

We’ve all been there: A simple request of our child, like hanging their jacket on the hook by the front door, results in a behavior disproportionately larger than needed. Your child stomps their feet proclaims fiercely “I’m not going to! You can’t make me!” More than likely, this response triggers us and our once calm inner state begins to escalate: our mind quickly clambers to figure out the most appropriate and effective response to this behavior, while managing our own emotional reactivity. We may raise our voices or be pulled into a power struggle. .. We may have a part of us that fears our child is being a brat…

Our attention is so focused on the negative behavior (the child’s yelling & refusal), we barely notice the host of emotions the child may also be feeling that underlay his or her behavior. If our goal is to ease the current tension while creating a teachable moment so fewer such incidences in the future, than we must turn to a practice that might not come so naturally in the moment: empathy! This can be tough we when find ourselves in our own “red zones”, but read on for some helpful tips on how it’s done!

This child is, in fact, asking for understanding in the form of empathy. Empathy is a term that you may have heard before, often mistakenly interchanged with sympathy, yet differing greatly. Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while empathy means observing someone else’s situation, recognizing what they are feeling, and experiencing similar feelings yourself. Empathy implies a more active process –feeling with someone, instead of for someone. It is an essential ingredient of connection for people of all ages, and adults can go along way in modeling and teaching empathy to children.

Brene Brown sums it up beautifully in this video:

Feeling with involves first becoming aware of our own feelings! This may be comfortable and fun at times when we find ourselves overjoyed, excited, or amused, but can cause great discomfort when we feel angry, hopeless or guilty. In moments like these, we may use unconscious strategies to distance ourselves from our feelings. We may respond to “How are you?” with a non-feeling word (“good”) or even a thought (“I feel like the winter will never end”). The truth is, until we feel our feelings, we cannot allow children to feel theirs.

Empathy empowers children to own their feelings and be become responsible for regulating them. Empathy does not change the limits on behavior; it helps children to become better able to accept them. — Becky Bailey

Four basic ingredients to empathy include Perspective Taking, Staying Out of Judgement, Recognizing Emotion and Communicating It. This is trickier than we think. We often respond to children in a similar way as our parents responded to us, or are quick to jump to common practices (such as “fix-it” advice or sharing a similar situation from our own lives) rather than consciously practicing an empathic response.

It takes practice and patience to hone our empathy skills. Here are some simple tips to get you started:

  1. Begin with yourself! Practicing self-compassion by noticing, instead of judging, your emotional state can allow you to regain composure and calm. Judging actually blocks awareness into what we are feeling by creating a negative inner dialogue that silences acceptance.
  2. Use “I Feel _____” with a feeling verb! We often over-identify with and become our feelings when triggered. Identifying and naming the feeling helps us shift from “I AM angry” to “I feel angry.”
  3. Don’t forget to breathe! Emotions are experienced on a physiological level. At the first hint of butterflies in the stomach or tension in the temples, taking some deep breaths can help bring oxygen to our brains and signal our body to regulate.
  4. Utilize the D.N.A. method from Conscious Discipline with kiddos –
    1. Describe what you’re seeing in terms of emotional signals to verbally capture the moment without judgement and invite eye contact: “Your face is going like this (demonstrate) and your arm is going like this (demonstrate).” Once you have caught your child’s eye, help to co-regulate them by staying calm and reducing the intensity of the moment.
    2. Name the feeling being communicated. “You seem sad.” or “You seem frustrated.” Even if you don’t know the exact feeling, take your best guess and allow a pause so the child can correct you. You are providing language to your child and increasing their ability to identify their emotions. Make sure your statement is tentative to give the child room to speak up if you miss the mark.
    3. Acknowledge this child’s desire by looking for the positive intent behind the actions and validating the experience. Two helpful phrases, which acknowledge the child’s wishes while facilitating problem solving, are are “You wanted _____” and “You were hoping ______.”  If a child states, “No one likes me!” you might be tempted to save and soothe them with, “That’s not true! You have lots of people who love you.” While this statement can reassure a child, it also subtly tells them not to feel the way they do. Instead try, “You seem sad. You were hoping to have more friends who care.”
  5. Avoid asking “Why” questions. We may jump to problem-solve with an upset child before they are ready to. “Why” can raise defenses instead of validating feelings, and more often than not, upset children are not yet calm enough to access their higher brain functioning (problem-solving skills) without some help regulating first.

So, let’s return to the scenario of a child refusing to take off his shoes. Instead of saying, “There’s no need to act like that” try using empathy to tune into feelings with:

“You seem angry. You were hoping for more play time outside before dinner.”  

For lots more about the power of empathy, check out this great bunch of Ted Talks on the subject. If you’re interested in learning many more skills to help children manage their emotions through empathy, I recommend No-Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame by Janet Lansbury, and Becky Bailey’s book, Managing Emotional Mayhem.

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