How to Start Parenting with Empathy
“Empathetic Parenting” or Parenting with Empathy
If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you may have noticed that I often talk about empathetic parenting. And I just recently realized that I have not defined what that means. I’m sure by now many people have heard the word empathy but I know for a fact that not everyone understands what empathy means.
Let’s just start out by defining what it means.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy (noun) – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; having the capacity for the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
Simple enough, right? (Sarcasm here. Wish they had a font for it. But this is the official Webster’s Dictionary definition of it.) And here is the definition for sympathy.
Sympathy (noun) – an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other; inclination to think or feel alike : emotional or intellectual accord.
The difference is rather subtle but it is there. And it all hinges on the fact that for sympathy you need to have experienced what the other person is going through, where for empathy that is not required.
To give an example: sympathy is when your friend is crying over a boyfriend that has broken up with her and you cry with her and commiserate. After all, you’ve had a few of those break ups yourself and you can relate to what she is going through. Empathy on the other hand is being able to sit next to your crying friend, listen to her and offer her support. There is no need for you to have experienced her situation, you just need to be able to imagine her pain and be there for her.
I personally find empathy to be a much more useful emotion than sympathy. Sympathy requires you to feel what the other person is feeling. It requires you to have experienced the same type of sadness in your life. While not a bad emotion to have and in certain situations a very necessary one, it can often be unhelpful. If you have two people sitting there crying over a situation and each thinking about how it’s affecting them, no one is able to help anyone. That is why I advocate for empathetic, not sympathetic parenting.
It’s often hard to muster up sympathy for our children. We have a much more developed brain and can control our emotions to a much greater extent than our children can. And if we try to sympathize, we might get angry because we simply don’t experience the situation the way they do. On the other hand, if you need to be empathetic in the situation, you don’t need to be able to experience it the way your child is experiencing it. You just need to observe, listen, and be there for them as they try to work through their feelings. It makes the task so much easier because you don’t necessarily need to put yourself in their shoes, you just need to listen to their needs.
I understand that this falls into the category of easier said than done. You may be asking yourself “Am I even capable of empathy? Especially amidst yet another monumental tantrum. What if I’m not an empathetic person?” But there is really good news on this front. Empathy is not just an innate skill. It is a skill that can be honed and developed with practice.
When It Comes to Empathy – Practice Makes Perfect
Here are some ways for you to practice empathy towards your child:
- Observe your child and learn their emotional cues
In order to be empathetic toward your child, you need to first start observing them. How do they act when they’re happy, sad, curious, tired, etc. By observing them, you are able to identify their emotions and learn their cues. It will make it easier for you to be tuned in to them. When you have a better idea what they are experiencing, it makes it easier for you to help them process the situation.
- Practice what you’ve learned by naming emotions for them
You don’t just have to show empathy for your child when they are experiencing negative emotions. You can show your empathy when they are experiencing positive emotions as well. Name all sorts of emotions for your child as they come up. Tell them when you see they are happy, sad, angry, confused, scared, excited, etc. It will help you be more in tune with them and your empathy for them will increase.
- Listen to your child without interrupting
This is more applicable to older children but can be employed with the younger ones as well. Obviously the prerequisite here is language and a toddler may not have the capacity for it. So when your child has enough language to express emotions, listen to them. Don’t interrupt and project your emotions onto them. Just listen. They will tell you what they need from you.
Now for a young tot without language, it may mean listening to an ear shattering tantrum. And that’s OK. Let them tantrum. Then calm them down with a soothing voice. Do your best to name their emotion for them and see how you can remedy the situation. So yes, here you will do more talking but you will be using their emotions as a guide for what you are talking about. And this means you are practicing empathy.
Empathy will Benefit Your Family in the Long Run
The more you practice these with your children, the more you can be empathetic to them in different situations. When your child is small, it may seem that empathy is not necessary. After all, you can punish them and potentially get them to stop doing something quickly. But I will caution you against doing it, as it may have big consequences for everyone involved as time goes on. Because kids eventually grow up and punishments stop working. (Not as if they truly worked in the first place). One thing that doesn’t stop working though is empathy. The more empathy you can show your child, the more likely they are to come to you in times of trouble. And if you practice being empathetic from a young age, it will become second nature to you. And that is something that will benefit both you (the parent) and your child. After all, so many people complain that their teens don’t share anything with them. And usually that is because the parents don’t know how to listen with empathy. You don’t need to understand or even relate to what your child is going through, you just need to listen.
Quote of the Day
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Mental Health Tip of the Day
It’s hard being empathetic when you’re running on empty. Constant tantrums and whining can wear down the best of us. So make sure you are empathetic towards yourself first. Take some time for self-care (whatever that means for you). It can be as simple as taking 5 minutes to yourself in the bathroom. When you don’t feel emotionally depleted, it is easier to be empathetic towards others.