Mothers want their children to be loved, understood, and validated in who they are. This is empathy! There are, however, some things empathy is not. This is part of my regular series on children and their emotions, and I hope today’s post unpacks the topic of empathy a bit more.
“Firm and forceful in their approach to problems. They believe in ‘tough love’ and try to ‘help’ others by challenging them to prove themselves, as they themselves would.” (source)
This is the accurate and humbling description of the Type A personality. Or should I say my Type A personality. But I read my email and know many of you are with me! As part of our natural temperament, the term “empathy” seems both appealing and scary.
And that’s because we tend to group the word empathy in parenting with other words such as permissive, lax, and “excuses.”
On the other hand, Type B personalities find empathy more natural. They don’t have to practice it like we do. Instead, they have to practice other characteristics such as discipline, consistency, and follow-through.
But no matter what your personality or temperament is… empathy is an important skill (yes, skill) to learn. It’s one of the most important tools a parent has, so let’s not misunderstand it.
So what exactly is empathy?
Empathy (n): the capacity to understand or feel what another is experiencing within a frame of reference, the capcity to place one’s self in another’s position.
Empathy in parenting does recognize your child’s emotions
Children, particularly toddlers and preschoolers, are big balls of emotions. Everything is Very Big and The End of the World. In our adultness, we see their feelings are exaggerated, so we may tend to downplay them. We might inadvertently encourage our children to stuff their emotions. This tells them we don’t care how they feel.
Empathy says, “I understand how you are feeling, this is tough for you, huh?“
Empathy does not condone bad behavior
We can empathize with what our children are going through in nearly every situation. This is good. And yet, it does not let bad behavior (purposeful and harmful behavior) go unchecked.
You can empathize with your children’s frustrations and feelings while still using appropriate consequences to help reinforce your own family rules.
Empathy says, “I know you were feeling frustrated, but hitting your brother is never okay.”
Empathy does help your children feel understood
A major cause for children to disconnect from you is the lack of understanding and connection. In fact, understanding and empathizing with your child is a major connection point. It’s a bridge builder.
Often, children are not trying to refuse a request or direction, they just want to get their point across first.
Empathy says, “I know you don’t want to go to bed right now, you still want to play, don’t you? Mommy feels that way too sometimes, but we all have to sleep!“
Emotions are a H U G E part of a young child’s life. These “I Am Feeling” cards will reduce tantrums, meltdowns, and help your little one learn emotional awareness.Learn More
Empathy does not host a pity party
There can be a fine line between validating and recognizing your child’s emotions then hosting a pity party. Some children tend to wallow in self-pity more than others. Ask me how I know. This is why it’s important to validate emotions positively and then go forward.
Too much navel gazing for children prone to wallow will not necessarily help.
Empathy says, “I see you feel very frustrated and angry right now. Let’s get that anger out and then do something fun.”
Empathy does make certain things easier for your child
Transition, change, and big scary things are hard for kids. They don’t want to leave the park, go to bed, or do chores. Adults can relate to these feelings.
When you know things will be hard for the kids, prepare them. Give them warnings. Be honest about what’s to come. Share the facts and help cushion the blow. This isn’t “giving” in, it’s helping your children deal.
Empathy says, “In 20 minutes we are going to put away the toys then do our chores. Have fun because in a few minutes we’re going to wrap it up.“
Empathy does not deprive them of hard work
Life is rough. Things get hard. People get sick, jobs are lost, feelings are shattered. Nothing you do as a parent can shield your children from life. Hard work (whether this is physical, mental, or emotional) is one way to build responsibility, character, and perseverance.
Empathy recognizes that hard work stinks and no one wants to do it, but also recognizing that “wanting to do it” has nothing to do with anything.
Empathy says, “I know you don’t want to work outside all day, it doesn’t seem fun to me either. But we all live at this house and we’re all going to help maintain it.”
Empathy is being a human and a mother in front of your children
We are not perfect. We will mess up. We will yell, punish harshly, and say things we shouldn’t. So will our children. It is okay to let our kids in on our humanity.
Empathy says, “Mommy messes up too, and I am very sorry. I understand how you feel.”
Empathy does not abdicate authority
Parents know what’s best for their children. At least in theory. Children are not “immature,” just not yet mature. They are incapable of making long-term and wise decisions by and large and this is why they need parents who are willing to make the hard decisions for their own good, even if it makes them momentarily unhappy.
A strong parent knows Fuzzy Feelings are not always the goal.
Empathy says, “I know you don’t understand right now, but this is for your own good.”
Empathy gives your child time and space
We mothers know that obedience is a goal in parenting. Not to create robots, but because children who regularly obey their reasonable parents are more well-adjusted and content. However, sometimes we need to let things sit. Give children time.
If you are asking something great of your child, let them have some time. Walk away for a moment. Let them come to their own choice with dignity.
Empathy says, “I know you how you feel about this, I will give you some time.”
Far from being permissive and lax, empathy is a great tool in the parenting toolbox.
It helps children feel understood and connected with you even when they have to do things they don’t want to do.
It helps them know you have their best interests at heart, even if they feel unhappy.
It says, even though things feel hard, I love you very much.