“Empathy not only matters; it is the foundation of effective parenting.”John Gottman
How our children react to us in times of frustration, joy, sadness and anger depends on whether we have developed a relationship of mutual respect and empathy.
Empathy refers to our ability to recognize and share someone else’s emotional state.
I often describe empathy as an expression of connecting with our child. Putting ourselves in your child’s place and imagining how a situation feels for them can be important for our self-regulation and behavior, as well as for our children.
Parents who consistently give messages of “I hear you”, “I see you”, “I want to understand you”, “what you are feeling” are likely to find that their children are more cooperative.
Can you imagine how powerful it would be if we felt understood and validated consistently by our parents throughout childhood?
Communication of empathy strengthens relationships and helps teach our children to recognize their feelings. This skill is important as children learn to self-regulate.
Practicing empathy can help parents recognize that their children are inherently good, regardless of their behavior. If we try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, the reasons for their behavior become more clear.
This allows us to intervene more effectively, calmly and lovingly. We can then focus on problem behaviors and how to address them.
Here are some examples of communicating genuine empathy and combining this with different strategies to encourage cooperation:
It’s so sad when you really want to watch TV. I know how much you love watching Bluey. I wish you could watch Bluey all day! It’s time to go to school. Should we race to the car or hop like bunnies to the car?
In this example, you are telling your child that their thoughts and feelings are important and you WISH you could say YES. You then provide an entertaining and engaging alternative to reduce the chances of a power struggle.
It’s so much fun to throw balls in the house. It’s frustrating when Mommy says you can’t throw balls and we can’t risk breaking things in the house. Can you think of some place you could throw balls where nothing would break?
With this response, you express empathy and then give your child a chance to solve the problem. When they determine an acceptable alternative, they gain confidence. You can then praise the positive behavior. I love that you decided to throw balls in the yard!
Here is an example of using empathy with an older child:
I know you really want to go to Caroline’s house for a sleepover tonight and you’re angry with me since I said no. You need to spend time with your friends and sleepovers are so much fun. I want to say yes. Your happiness means a lot to me. But it’s also my job to keep you safe. Can you think of something else you would like to do instead?
This is an example of connecting with your child. You recognize why they want to go to the sleepover and genuinely wish you could say yes. Your child may still be upset about the situation, but you are doing everything possible to defuse the situation and strengthen the relationship. If you approach the situation with less empathy, their reaction to you will be different.
Expressing empathy and validation while providing our children with strong and consistent boundaries can help promote positive behaviors and strengthen our relationship with them long term. It also feels better for us when we respond to our children calmly and lovingly. Using this approach and incorporating empathy into your parenting practice can take time but can be a rewarding and empowering experience.