“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Brené Brown, Ph.D.
I once entered an elevator to the sounds of a crying infant. The mother faced forward and was holding the baby up to face the rear of the elevator. She was shifting her body from side to side and patting the baby’s back in an attempt to quiet her. I stood with my back at the rear of the elevator and turned my head to look at the baby’s face. The baby looked at me. “You seem upset,” I acknowledged, nodding slightly. The baby instantly stopped crying and stared at me with what looked like a mixture of relief and disbelief. (A story I shared in my post, “Baby Manipulator”)
Empathy can have a powerfully calming effect, particularly in the early years with children. I imagine that’s because our babies and toddlers are limited in their ability to communicate thoughts and emotions, so they’re not accustomed to feeling understood. When that happens… Whoa! What a wonderful surprise! They not only feel heard and understood, but also have the reassurance from one of the extremely important adults in their lives that it’s perfectly okay for them to feel what they’re feeling. It’s no wonder empathy can make children feel instantly better.
Yet, for all the inspiring stories I hear from parents and professionals about the miraculous power of empathy, I also hear concerns about empathy not working. Here are the most common reasons empathy doesn’t work:
It’s not supposed to.
Empathy can work like magic, but like all magic, it doesn’t work if we try to make it work. In fact, it will often only serve to aggravate the situation when we try to use empathy as a technique for getting kids to stop crying. For example, we might say, “You are so upset about such-and-such,” while our not-so-subtle subtext is stop crying, I’m understanding you already! I’m acknowledging your darn feelings, so enough! Or, perhaps, we rush in to hug our angry child to make it better. That isn’t empathy; it is impatience. Never doubt that children know the difference.
Empathy isn’t a tactic. It is a way of connecting that must be pure and genuine. It is the opposite of calming tantrums, soothing sadness, squelching feelings. It is all about accepting, allowing, even welcoming feelings to be expressed, however strong they are and long they last.
It’s too big a leap.
To empathize authentically we must understand our child’s point of view, but often we don’t, at least not in the moment. At those times, when we simply acknowledge what we see, “It upset you when Joey touched your shoulder,” it can help steer us towards understanding and empathy. We might realize, “Oh, that’s right, it’s almost naptime, and she gets very sensitive to touch when she’s tired.”
Also, when our goal is to empathize, we’re more inclined (especially with preverbal children) to veer into projecting — taking the child’s feelings to the next level. For example, we might say to our only slightly startled toddler, “That dog barking scared you!” Instead of, “That surprised you, didn’t it?”
Our thoughts and feelings matter because they almost always set the tone for our children (evident when you see children fall and then immediately check with the parent to “see” how they should feel). So, when our well-intentioned attempts to empathize misfire, we can actually end up intensifying our children’s emotional responses and making them feel less competent. It’s safer to acknowledge, “You tripped on the rug and fell. I saw.” And then wait to see how the child feels about it before empathizing, “Ouch, that hurt.”
It opens the floodgates.
A parent shared, “Empathy doesn’t work with my child… When I try acknowledging her feelings she cries even harder…and it doesn’t seem to stop. How long should I let her cry?”
This, actually, is empathy working. Beautifully.
When we acknowledge our child’s perspective patiently and genuinely…
When we are bravely willing to wait, listen, accept, not talk too much or even at all, and not put a time limit on emotional expression…
When we can be quietly available to our child for hugs or cuddles without initiating them…
We then encourage children to express the emotions and stress they may have been holding onto for hours, days, weeks, months, even years.
When empathy is patient, present, calm, open, accepting, and real, it will always work to bring you closer. And feeling truly connected always eases our pain, sooner or later.
Exciting news! Acclaimed family therapist Susan Stiffelman and I are co-presenting a parenting master class on navigating our children’s emotions. We’ll be covering the whole gamut, from whining, “I’m bored,” to physical lashing out and major meltdowns. Hope you’ll join us next Thursday, June 28th at 12:00 PM PST! You can find out more and register HERE.
I share more about empathy and emotional health in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo and poster by Sara Prince, author of bonzo, chooch, mushy and me)