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Empathy is a powerhouse tool to draw on in a multitude of situations. In life. In marriage. And most definitely, with our kids.
I have already written about how empathy can help us interact with our sweethearts when they are being less than sweet. When children are acting out or being disobedient, empathy can go a long way in preserving our connection with them while still allowing them to learn the important lesson in front of them.
Empathy when your child is mad
Another opportunity to offer empathy to our children is when they are upset. Or, in other words, when they are experiencing a meltdown that borders on a little cray cray with a side of illogical. Every mama experiences this. I have four and I experience these little situations on a daily basis.
So, I’m here to share with you about how empathy can turn a very upset kiddo into one who feels comforted, is able to listen to instruction or advice and who is able to jump back into whatever is going on with a good attitude.
What is empathy?
To empathize is to attempt to feel what your child is feeling. Better yet, it is to make your child feel that you understand how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way. Helping your little one feel that you are empathizing with them happens primarily through body language, listening to your child and through some simple phrases you can use with them.
Body language that promotes and conveys empathy includes:
- getting down on your child’s level by kneeling, sitting on the ground with them or picking them up. The idea is to be at eye level with the child, not looking down at them.
- facing the child with your whole body while unengaged in any other task. This can be hard! Sometimes our children have meltdowns or feel sad at inopportune times. But choosing to continue on with a task instead of let go of it and turn towards our child will not convince them of our empathy (and make it hard for us to feel it!).
- give your child a hug, hold them or put an arm around them. When we are showing our children affection through touch their social and emotional development improves. Our touch can also help our children develop a healthy sense of self. Helping our children gain confident in themselves through offering a hug, hold them or putting an arm around them is a powerful way to use body language to communicate empathy.
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In these moments, apart from probably just wanting their own way, our children want to be heard. If they feel like we are listening to them and understand the need or want or way in which they were hurt (and are therefore now mad), two things will happen.
First, they will feel comforted. This is how we all feel when we bring a hurt or concern to another person and they listen. So, it is only natural our children would feel this way also.
Secondly, they will feel heard. I cannot count the times that my children have walked away without getting their way but have calmed down simply because I heard them. Instead of being quick to speak, spending a moment letting them just talk out all their thoughts and feelings.
It may be repetitive and may not make a lot of sense, but it will feel so good to them. Just let them ramble and explain in whatever way they can.
What to say
After you have gotten down on their level and spent the time needed to listen to your little one, it’s time to use some simple phrases to offer more comfort. The phrases I commonly use include:
- I’m so sorry that happened
- I understand
- That must be hard
- I’m sorry that is hard for you
- I love you
- I’m right here with you
- I see you are feeling ________. It is ok to feel that way.
- I’m here to help you
- You can trust me
- Would you like some help?
- How can I help you?
- Is there something you need?
- What would you like to do?
Using empathy to help solve a problem…sometimes
By fully engaging in the moment our children come to us upset, by using caring body language, listening to their feelings and offering an empathetic response, you can expect to have a child who feels comforted.
Your child may have come to you with the hopes of having their problem solved. It may or may not be a problem you can solve. This is why ‘What would you like to do?’ is one of my absolute favorite phrases.
It puts the ball in their court and empowers them to come up with a list of potential solutions or bounce an idea off of me. They have felt comforted and now my goal is to empower them to come up with a solution to their own problem.
If they haven’t come to me in hopes of solving a problem but just need to let me know what has happened, my go to phrase is typically, “I’m sorry that happened.” I use this even when someone gets hurt. I can’t take away the pain usually, but I can have an empathetic response to their owie. That usually makes them feel better than any bandaid could.
What empathy gets you
Overall, however, no matter why my child comes to me, my empathetic response helps them feel understood, heard and ready to get back out there. They often also feel empowered to go solve a problem or get back into the activity in which they just experienced major frustration. They just needed a momentary break to connect with mama about something that was upsetting them.
What empathy gets them
Beyond what my child feels when I choose to respond to them with empathy, is what it shows them how to do: have an empathetic response to others around them.
On a nearly daily basis, my children take the time to respond empathetically to their siblings and others they come into contact with. Often the older ones (6 and 8) will see someone going through something and then proceed to tell me, “I bet when that happened they felt…”.
They are practicing empathy. They are imagining what it would feel like to go through the experience of another. This is setting my children up for success in their friendships, future marriage and role as a parent as well as in any career they choose to pursue. Empathy has come to be considered a vital soft skill even in the business world!
Of course, empathy may not come totally naturally to our children at first. But, as they experience our empathy towards them, they will have a basis from which to practice it. I try to regularly ask them questions that cause them to practice empathy. When they see someone experiencing something good or bad, I ask them what that person might be feeling.
When they have a conflict with their siblings, before helping them resolve their conflict, I often ask them to tell me what they think the other person is feeling. This takes more time, but I have seen that over the long run, it saves time. As my kids start to think about how their sibling might be feeling, I have to get involved a lot less. They do the empathetic work in their own head and often solve problems with each other out of that. I think this is one of the things I am most proud of about my kids.
And it is often noticed by others. I am regularly told how thoughtful and kind my children are to each other and to others. I’m so incredibly thankful that such a small practice is making a big impact on who my children are. I am so proud of them as I watch them interact with others because I can see they are genuinely incredibly caring.
It’s worth it
I really believe empathy is one of the greatest practices within parenthood that we can regularly engage in. It helps us respond well to our children no matter what they are bringing to us.
It helps our children feel heard and understood, which brings their stress level and over the top reaction to things down. They become much easier to engage with when they feel understood.
We also continue to build a deep connection to our children’s heart. Empathy must be part of our relationship with them in order to deepen it. I believe it is empathy that will see us through the biggest parenting challenges.
I also believe it will help my children see through their biggest life challenges. So, I’m committed to making it part of our daily interaction. And I’m seeing the benefits! I know you will, too!