The ABC's of Empathy for You & Your Children
Witnessing someone you love in pain is difficult. If the person in pain is our child, it can feel even more urgent to fix the pain, find a solution, and take care of whatever is going on for the person in pain, so that everyone feels better and things go back to “normal”.
Unfortunately that method of dealing with pain, doesn’t really fix anything. It sends the message to the person in pain that:
(1.) They are alone in what they are feeling and
(2.) They aren’t capable of handling the situation.
In fact, parents who are fixers often unintentionally, raise children who feel victimized and are at an increased risk of not understanding how their actions impact others and how others feel about experiences in general, in other words, empathy.
Empathy is the ability to feel another’s emotions, to really be able to put yourself in “their shoes” so to speak.
It certainly doesn’t solve anything, BUT it does validate the person in pain AND it does help them to feel understood and connected to others, which we need to feel a sense of belonging with others. When we belong among others we tend to think about how our behavior impacts those around us as well as ourselves, it improves conflict resolution, relationship satisfaction and even job satisfaction.
So how do we teach our kids empathy?
First we model it.
Yes, that’s the really hard part. We have to manage our own feelings when our children are in pain, struggling, so that we can meet them in their pain, understanding their perspective and validating their feelings. All of that can seem scary and out of control, but it works.
I can remember a time in my child’s life, an important day, and they were deeply disappointed by another family member forgetting and simply not showing up. My child was understandably devastated, and I was enraged. I wanted so badly to fix it, to smooth it over, to come up with a plan.
Instead, I sat on their bed and listened.
I said things like, “I see you’re hurt, and very sad, I’d feel that way too”. I also said things like “Everything you are saying makes sense.”
It was HAAAAAARRD.
My heart was breaking for them. However, after awhile my child started to say, “Ok, enough, I need to do something to enjoy the rest of my day.” I didn’t generate a solution, I didn’t swoop in to rescue, I just sat with them until they were ready to access their own resiliency and move through the pain. That was a time I modeled empathy well. There were also times, I didn’t, I assure you, but the point is, when we model empathy with our children, they understand their emotional landscape, feel safe with us as their parents, and feel more capable to handle the difficult things in their lives. That all sounds like what we want, right?
Along with modeling empathy, we can teach it by labeling emotions, asking our children what others involved in situations might be feeling, and when they are younger we can read books about empathy to them. All of these strategies help develop our children's skill in recognizing what they are feeling, understanding what others may be feeling and in predicting how their behavior impacts others, all of which helps them successfully navigate the world of relationships.
To help you we’ve put together a list of six books to read with your children or with the children that you love that beautifully illustrate empathy. We also have Integration Nation Episode 212: Empathy is a Magic Wand, as a resource to help you dive a little deeper into empathy skill building in your own life.