In this edition it's my turn! I want to share with you a blog that I was asked to write for the charities "Growing Families" and "Family Links" on empathy in parenting.
Empathy is such a powerful ingredient in all our relationships, however in parenting it can be a game changer.................
“Empathy! Yes, I know what that is, I use it all the time!”
In my work as a parent coach and also a trainer of family/parent practitioners this is a common response when I mention the word empathy.
However, do we REALLY know what empathy is and how powerful it can be in our relationships with our children (and in fact in all our relationships)?
When I looked up the meaning of the word “empathy” I found this: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
But can we truly “understand” the feelings of another? For me the difficulty I see, is that we forget to stand the other person’s shoes and see the situation from their emotional viewpoint and not our own – this is where the power of empathy lies.
How many times have you started to share something that you are really upset about and get a response like “Oh yes, I know exactly how you feel, that happened to me, it was awful……..” cue them now recounting their story leaving you listening to their story and yours being side-lined!
Or perhaps you got a response “Poor you! How awful! What you should do is………………..” Again no empathy here, a bit of sympathy and lots of fixing it!
However, use empathy correctly and it has the power to heal, connect and transform relationships, making empathy a vital skill to learn as a parent. In my opinion t’s fundamental to our parenting tool-box.
At Natural Flair we feel that empathy is the ability to see something from the other person’s emotional point of view – trying to sense what it’s like to be them by stepping into their shoes. Not feeling the experience ourselves as this is sympathy! It means we have to stay emotionally neutral and also out of judgement.
So we can see how tricky it might be, particularly where our children are concerned as we can easily get hooked in and respond emotionally to them. However, empathy does allow us to understand the feelings behind the behaviour without agreeing with the actual behaviour!
All of us feel angry, frustrated, lonely etc. at times and these feelings are what make us human and some feel it easier than others to find the words to express our feelings – this is the same for our children too.
Children often act out feelings because they can’t put them into words – they might do this by being aggressive, tearful, shouty or withdrawn, or even having a major meltdown because you won’t buy them an ice-cream after playgroup or because they weren’t picked for the football team, even though they went to every practise session.
Being able to put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand their behaviour (not agree or condone it), means that we can parent assertively too! An empathic response to children’s’ moods makes our relationship with them happier and closer and of course children who are treated with empathy and respect will learn to be empathic and respectful to others.
So that’s all very well, but for some of us it might all sound a bit “pink and fluffy”. Or a bit “namby pamby”!
I certainly think about 6 or 7 years ago my husband would have definitely been in this camp! Our youngest son is, let’s say, a little “feisty” and empathy has certainly been a tool I’ve tried to use in my parenting with him. I can often recall myself saying;
“You look very angry with me” or
“It can be disappointing when you’re in the middle of a game and the toys need to be put away” or
“You sound very cross about that”
Many times it has helped to stop a potential meltdown or defuse some pretty major feelings.
Originally, my husband’s parenting style was more to the side of authoritarian. A typical response might be to say “stop making such a fuss about it” or “you’re so rude, I’m not listening to this anymore”. Those types of responses/phrases, can place blame or brush feelings aside that should be addressed.
However, over the years it’s been interesting to see how he has adopted a more empathic response towards me and the children and that’s made a big difference in our family.
Let’s look at it another way. Can you think of a situation where you turned to someone for support or advice and they failed to respect your feelings? Dismissed how you felt? Didn’t actually listen to you? How did you feel towards that person?
Can you think of another time when someone responded truly empathically to you, really tuning into your feelings? Listened without interrupting or telling you what to do? How did you feel towards them?
If we notice how helpful it can be for us when someone truly accepts the way we feel, then we will know that it will be the same for our children too!
So that’s the theory, but what about in practise? There’s a whole language around empathy and sometimes it can be helpful just to have a starting point. So after listening to our child and trying to stay neutral emotionally ourselves we can respond with the opening of;
I wonder if……..
It can be hard when…….
Followed by suggesting how they might feel, then pausing and not going into fix it mode, (this is the powerful bit)!
It’s as simple as that! We can follow it up with the second stage of offering a suggestion that might be helpful in that situation, but sometimes it’s not necessary. Sometimes our children don't want us to "fix it" that just want to be listened to and understood.
So back to my husband – after 7 years or so he’s becoming pretty efficient at practising empathy even to the point that he will now say to me when I get frustrated with our children
“It sounds like you're frustrated with the kids! Remember Sharon, empathy is your ace card”!!!