Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. ..it makes the world a better place. – Daniel H. Pink
My husband and I, as many parents, want to raise children who are kind, open and accepting of other people. We also want our children to have a strong sense of themselves and the ability to be true to themselves and their values in the face of whatever life throws at them. Empathy, or the ability to understand and share another person is feeling, plays a strong part in raising children with these values.
According to psychiatrist Dr. David Sack in his post, From Mine to Ours, Nurturing Empathy in Children, Children with a strong sense of empathy are kinder and more resilient against peer pressure. They are the children more likely to attract friendships, to have more diverse groups of friends and to feel secure enough to stand alone rather than blindly follow the group.
There are many books, articles, and posts with information on how to raise more empathetic children, but one thing they all seem to have in common an emphasis on parenting that emphases connection and communication. In her article Teaching Empathy, Dr. Gwen Dewar references studies that suggest kids are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home. Empathy is a cornerstone of positive, conscious, responsive, attached parenting (as many other areas of life). Showing children empathy for all of the challenges of trails the face as they move through life, helps them to be kinder to themselves and to others.
And although I know this on a theoretical and practical level, oftentimes in the moment I need it most, empathy evades me.
As a practicing social worker for years before I became a mom, I have had the privilege of working with, and getting to know, people from many diverse economic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I prided myself on my ability to connect with even the most resistant client through our shared humanity. Yet as a parent, I find this empathy harder to express.
One reason for this may be the emotions involved in family interactions that are not involved in professional interactions. As Dr. Dewar explains (in the above referenced article), the expression of, or ability to express, empathy is only possible when one is able to regulate one’s own emotional responses. And it can be challenging to feel empathy when we feel threatened, stressed or emotionally triggered, which is often the case when overstressed parents are faced with overstressed children (see How to be Truly Empathetic for more).
What is Empathy?
In his article Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It, defines empathy as the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. (For a more detailed explanation, watch this short video clip from a Ted Talk by Brené Brown).
When something happens that I understand, a physical pain, a fight over toys, a bid for my attention, I am more easily able to respond empathetically. But when my highly sensitive daughter is triggered into an intense display of emotion over a misplaced cup, a younger brother who does not do exactly as she says, or something not going according to her exact expectations multiple times a day, I find it harder to truly empathize.
I have practiced responses, “Wow. It looks like you’re having a really hard time right now!” or “You seem really angry right now,” but I don’t often FEEL empathy because, my initial reaction is more often one of annoyance, aggravation or anger.
But I want to change this.
And so in March, I will work to be more empathetic, and even if I only get as far as stopping, sitting down at her level and opening my arms for a hug, without uttering a word, this will be a great improvement over the present!
Week 1– Practice Listening, Reflecting and Taking the Opposing Perspective
How often as parents, have we heard ourselves saying, “She’s just tired,” or “He’s just hungry,” or some other statement that tells our children what they are feeling when their behavior is less-than-stellar? I know I am guilty of it and can hear my daughter in my head yelling, “I’m NOT TIRED!” And maybe she is, maybe she’s not, but it isn’t for me to tell, but to ask.
In his article I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy, the author advises the practice of attentive listening and using empathetic responses, such as, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” instead of assuming we know how someone feels or rushing in to make things better. In Time Magazine’s Article, 5 Ways to be More Empathetic, Krznaric advises, to step back for a moment in the midst of an argument and try to see what the other person is feeling and consider what they need. He suggests giving them a chance to express their feelings and needs, and then to reflect back what they’ve said. A phrase often used in positive parenting circles is, “What I hear you say is ___________, or what your body is telling me is ____________? Am I right?
This week, instead of assuming I know how my daughter is feeling, I will try to practice checking in with her, practicing active listening and reflecting her feelings back to her to see if she feels more heard.
Week 2 – Practice Restraint (of the Desire to Try to Make Things Better)
I remember reading years ago, that between men and women, women are more likely to listen and empathize, while men are more likely to feel the need to jump in and provide assistance, or to fix the situation. This has stuck with me because I have always been more like the men in this description when friends or family members came to me with problems or concerns. In my professional life, I could empathize; in my personal life, I feel the need to do something. Just empathizing never felt like enough.
Yet in a portion of Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on empathy, referenced above, she states, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection (through empathy).” Instead of trying to “fix” a situation, she suggests saying, “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”
This week, I am going to practice restraining my desire to try to make things better in conversations with friends and family members and let empathy be enough.
Week 3 – Practice Restraint (of Judgement)
Whenever I’ve read the quote that begins, “Please Mom and Dad, my hands are small. I don’t mean to spill my milk…” and goes on to ask for understanding from parents from the perspective of a small child, I have always teared up, envisioning an innocent child punished for simply being small. But once my daughter was born and developed into the head-strong, spirited child that she is, my vision of this small, innocent child has vanished, replaced instead by the picture of a little person deliberately determined to reject any and all positive influence I try to have on her and to drive me mad in the process.
It is this image that often clouds my vision when looking at my daughter’s scowling face, leading me to see willful defiance rather than a child struggling. And it is this judgement that so often keeps me from empathizing with her plight.
In her Ted Talk, Brené Brown, includes the added element of “reserving judgement,” as a necessary ingredient to empathy. This week, I will try to use my mindfulness cue of a rising level of frustration, to notice any judgements in response to my daughter’s behavior and to replace them with a more loving, understanding, empathetic perspective before responding.
Week 4 – Practice Developing a New Perspective
My closest friend has a very clear memory of her childhood. She not only remembers people and events; she also remembers feelings. She can recall how it felt when her mother left her, for even short amounts of time. She can recall feelings of joy, sadness and fear. She remembers what it feels like to be a child. And because she can do this, she is more easily able to understand how her children are feeling and empathize authentically.
I do not have such memories. I remember bits and pieces. Stories that were told to me. Snippets of my younger years. But I have no memories (or access to memories) of what it feels like to be a child.
In her article 4 Unexpected (and Science Backed) Ways to Develop Empathy, the author suggests reading literary fiction to immerse yourself in the lives of fictional characters to develop empathy for others. While there may not be a lot of literary fiction written by children, this week, I will seek out stories, articles and quotes on childhood and incorporate them into my reading for the day to help me better understand and empathize with my own children.
Note on Empathy on a Larger Scale
I realize that so much of this post focuses on empathizing with children as parents, whereas some readers may not be parents or may want to practice empathy in different areas. For resources on developing empathy in other areas, Roman Krznaric’s Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It, or any of the other links in this post.
What about you? Do you struggle to empathize with your children or others in stressful moments, or have you found ways to practice empathy that work for you? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for Reading!
Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook