What happened to you when you cried or had big feelings as a child?

Were you told to “Suck it up, Buttercup!” or “Stop crying. It’s not a big deal.” 

Did a parent swoop in to quickly fix the problem? Or distract you from whatever caused the upset?

Or were you simply ignored?

None of these responses will help our child learn to manage their emotions. 

Our culture has such a hard time with big feelings. Most of us were not raised with a lot of empathy- and empathy still does not come easily to us as parents. 

There are a lot of reasons for this. 

Many of us are afraid that if we acknowledge feelings and give our child empathy when they are upset it might make them “weak.” We worry that if they are upset about something small, it might encourage them to always be upset about small things and they will never become resilient. 

We might be afraid to lean in to the big feelings because maybe we’re not a good parent if our child is upset. Or we worry that if we lean in, our child’s big feelings are going to last forever. 

We also worry that empathy will make the situation worse and that our child will go further down the road of being upset.

And really- it’s also just uncomfortable to be in the presence of big difficult feelings and we just want it to stop!

I get it! 

Empathy is hard- and for most of us it is completely unfamiliar. And at the same time- it’s probably the most important tool in our peaceful parenting toolbox. 

So what exactly IS empathy?

Empathy is trying to get into another person’s shoes and feel with them.

Empathy does not mean that we necessarily agree or even that we understand. In fact, very often we won’t intellectually understand the things our children are upset about or resisting.

Empathy helps people feel better by letting them move through their feelings with a safe, warm presence. (And by the way, it doesn’t make the feeling worse.)

When we empathize with someone who’s upset we are sending the message that their big feelings are not an emergency and that they can handle it. Resilience doesn’t mean that we never get upset. Resilience is that we can move through upsetting feelings and recover. When we empathize with children rather than trying to make the feelings stop, we are helping them to develop resilience.  

Empathy also meets one of our children’s basic human needs: belonging.

When we empathize, they feel worthy and loveable. They feel seen, heard, understood and connected. 

They don’t feel alone. 

BONUS: There is a side benefit of empathy. It helps our child to calm down and cooperate. However, that’s not the reason why we’re doing it! 

Empathy is NOT a trick or a tactic. We use empathy with our children because we are two humans in relationship with each other and we want to meet their needs.

Why does empathy often make parenting easier though? 

If kids feel understood and not pushed around- they’re often much more willing to go along with our agenda. 

Here’s an example from a client whose four year old didn’t want to take a bath:

My client was having a lot of power struggles at bath time with her very strong-willed child. (No one needs a bath every day- but occasionally we might need to set a limit about this!)  

At bath time, with all the true warmth and compassion and understanding she could muster, she said, “I know you really, really don’t want to take a bath! It is so hard to stop playing. And bath comes before bed and you don’t want to go to bed. I know it’s hard. You really, really don’t want to take a bath. I get it, sweetheart.”  

My client tried this and came back saying she could not believe it. Her child stopped crying about the bath, sniffed a few times and then said, “Okay, Mommy, I’m ready to take a bath.”

She didn’t like it, but she felt like her mom really understood.

Empathy can also help our kids calm down when they are upset. 

So many parents are confused because their children do not want to use the calm down breathing methods they have taught them (like pretending to blow out the birthday candles or other mindfulness exercises.) Think about if you were really upset about something and someone told you to “Calm down!” or “Take a deep breath!” It would make you more mad!

No one wants to calm down unless we feel understood!

Let’s use an adult example to help us understand how this all works:

Pretend that tomorrow is the first day of your new job. Your lucky shirt is at the cleaners because you knew that this day was coming and you wanted to make sure that you could wear it. You know it is a little silly, but it’s really important to you, so you ask your partner to pick it up on the way home. 

But when your partner comes home, there’s no lucky shirt! 

You say, “Where’s my shirt? You said you would pick it up.”

Your partner says “Oh no. I forgot.”

The dry cleaner is closed. You can’t get the lucky shirt before your first day. And you were already starting to feel a bit nervous, and now knowing you don’t have the shirt you wanted to wear is making you  even more nervous and upset. 

And not only that, you are also disappointed that your partner said that they would do something and they didn’t do it.

You say to your partner, “You said you were going to get it for me! And I really, really need it.”

And your partner says, “Oh, come on. You’re being silly. It’s just a shirt. You’ll be fine!”

How would that make you feel? If that were me, I know I would feel more upset and dysregulated.

What if instead your partner said, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t get your shirt. I know how important that is to you, and I really let you down. I know you  really wanted that shirt for tomorrow. You always wear that shirt when you have important work days and I can see how upsetting this is.”

Your partner might not agree at all, but they see that it’s important to you and that you are disappointed. 

How would you feel in that second scenario? I would feel understood and validated.

But how do we manage to empathize like this when we really don’t agree or understand the upset? 

We need to look at the feeling that is underneath the surface issue. 

For example, when you cut your toddler’s muffin in half and they start having a meltdown because they didn’t want it cut, the surface issue is the muffin is cut in half. 

The feeling that’s underneath could be powerlessness because your child doesn’t get to prepare their own food. Or maybe it’s disappointment because they really wanted that big muffin. Or maybe it’s feeling misunderstood because they thought you knew that they didn’t want it cut in half. 

We can connect to all those big universal feelings- powerlessness, disappointment, being misunderstood- because we have experienced them before. 

When we are empathizing about the muffin, we need to connect to those underlying feelings. We can say, “You didn’t want me to cut the muffin in half? Oh, I’m so sorry. You really wanted a big muffin, didn’t you? Oh sweetheart. It’s so hard when somebody doesn’t understand what you want.”

And if we really can’t understand at all and we don’t even know what the feeling is underneath?, 

We can just say, “I see how upset you are about this. This is really hard. Sometimes nothing goes right!” 

We’re never going to get to empathy if we are trying to think about how we would feel if somebody cut our food the wrong way. 

Empathy is trying to connect with your upset child. Letting them know that you see that they’re in pain and distress. 

How would we like someone to respond to us? It might not even be saying or doing anything. Empathy is less about what you say and more about truly feeling for your child.

What if empathy doesn’t “work”?

I often have clients who have said all the “right” things when their child was upset but report back that it didn’t seem to “work” at calming their child down or getting them to cooperate.

Remember- empathy is not a trick or a tactic! 

When I ask them what they were feeling when they said those empathic words, they would often say “angry”, “annoyed”, or “frustrated”.

If we say words of empathy, but we’re not actually connecting at a heart level and feeling for our child, they can tell. It’s not true empathy.

If we are feeling annoyed and frustrated, we have to take a minute to use some of our self regulation strategies to calm ourselves first. 

Give yourself some empathy and compassion, and then take a few deep breaths. “They’re not giving me a hard time. They’re having a hard time.” Put your hand on your heart, or any other strategies that help you calm yourself. And then we can go back to trying to see it from our child’s point of view. 

We also need to match our child’s tone and energy. 

For example, if we’re empathizing  with our child because they’re really sad that their friend couldn’t come over and play, and they’re feeling really low about it, we would soften our voice and say, “Aw, I’m so sorry that your friend couldn’t come over. It is so disappointing.”

If our child is really angry because we made them turn off the TV and they’re shouting and yelling, we might want to raise our energy a little bit and say with more intensity, “I know! You hate it when you have to turn the TV off!”  

Sometimes kids seem to get more upset when we empathize. Our child might say, “Don’t say that!” or “Stop saying that!” or “Stop talking!”

This could be because we’re actually not feeling empathetic, and they can tell what we are saying doesn’t ring true.  

Or sometimes kids will say those things for the opposite reason: We’re actually being really effective at empathizing with them and they are going a little bit further into their feelings and it’s uncomfortable. They don’t want to feel the way they’re feeling. They don’t want to feel upset. And our empathy is actually helping them connect with the feeling a little bit more.

In that case, we can stop talking. We don’t have to say anything, just go back to connecting with the heart, being quiet, being with them in their feelings. And they will move through it and get to the other side of their feelings.

It’s very hard to be with someone who’s in distress and not go into the, “Suck it up Buttercup!” mode or not go into the “fix it!” mode. Being with someone we love who is upset can be painful and distressing and we just want to stop the feelings.   

However, empathy helps our child learn to move through their feelings and develop resilience. They will feel understood, seen, heard, connected, know that they’re worthy and lovable and it will help them become more resilient and become stronger people. And, hey, as a side benefit- we just might get shorter meltdowns and more cooperation! 

I’d call this a peaceful parenting win/win.

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