We could all benefit from more empathy. A deficit of empathy in our culture is evident in school violence, bullying, depression and even suicide. Increasing empathy, on the other hand, results in better communication, more harmonious interactions and better-behaved kids. In fact, recent research – in neuroscience, school psychology, clinical psychology and parent/infant interaction – points to empathy as central to emotional, social, cognitive and even physical growth and development. This knowledge has created a new wave of “empathy awareness” programs in schools and has had a profound influence in new philosophies about parenting.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy means to put oneself in another’s shoes, to try to see the world through another’s eyes. It does not mean agreeing with the other person or simply being nice. Empathy involves taking the time to listen and understand what the other person is feeling, thinking and intending – understanding how it makes sense. “It makes sense that you would feel that way” or “I can understand why you would want that” are empathic responses. They provide the child with the experience of feeling heard, respected and validated.
Feeling understood is one of the most fundamental psychological needs we all have. The need to find relationships within which we feel heard and understood is with us from birth until death. And what we experience in this realm of interpersonal relations often determines much of who we are and what we do.
What Empathy Is Not
When we look at distinguishing empathy, or empathic responses, from the idea of giving children (or adults!) anything they want or demand, we realize that what the other person fundamentally needs is to feel understood and connected. Viewing our children’s expressions as attempts to feel understood, rather than as attempts to manipulate or intrude on us, helps us find empathy, even if we need to deny them what they are requesting.
How Empathy Works
At times, feeling and showing empathy can be difficult. I remember an incident with my son when I had to pull upon this knowledge. Alex was 6 years old and we were in a toy store looking to spend his birthday money. He picked out a couple of small toys and then abandoned them when he saw a huge, elaborate gun with electronic gadgets and sounds and lights. “That’s what I want!” he exclaimed.
My reflex was to become anxious and irritated. First, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a gun and wished he wasn’t so excited about it. Second, it was way beyond his price range, which was $20. I was tense that a battle would ensue with Alex begging for the gun and me denying it.
While my instinct was to say a fast and firm no – to nip it in the bud and get across to him that I was not negotiating, I feared he would not accept my “no” and would begin asking me to add money to the pot. I didn’t want a spoiled child, the type who “wanted what they wanted, and now!” I feared that if I didn’t lay down the law, he might chip away at my resolve to set this limit and that I would end up giving in and spending my money, which I didn’t want to do. Recognizing my anxiety and immediate defensiveness, I reminded myself to “join with him” and “empathize with his enthusiasm.” After all, aside from all my concerns, it was a cool gun. If I were a 6-year-old boy, I would probably be excited about it, too. It wasn’t bad that he was excited or that he hoped to share his excitement with me. It wasn’t even bad that he wanted it. Of course he did!
Finding an empathic stance with his perspective helped calm me. “Isn’t that cool?!” I responded. We spent a couple minutes looking at the gun, with him teaching me about all the features. He held it, tried it out and handed it to for me to see.
After appreciating the gun, we both looked at the price tag. “Oh no, this costs $60,” I said. “That’s way more than you have.” I could see the wheels turning in his little mind, making sense of this frustration. “I can see why you’d want this,” I said, “but you only have $20.”
He put the gun back on the shelf, disappointed but not crushed. “Maybe I’ll ask Santa for it for Christmas,” he said, and we moved on without incident.
I must acknowledge that my son has a very easy-going temperament. Another child, or even my son at another moment, might have had more difficulty accepting the situation. He might have held me responsible for the disappointment, feeling that I was unfairly withholding something from him that he really wanted. If that were the case, I would need to focus my understanding on his frustration and disappointment with me, pointing out that his feelings made sense given his excitement over the gun.
My son’s fundamental need was not for the gun itself. It was to share his excitement with me. In that shared moment of enthusiasm, he felt validated and connected. Once his fundamental need for connection was met, he could cope with frustration and disappointment much more easily than if I had demanded it. He was not in a battle with me; we were on the same team, dealing with the limits of reality.
Creating Empathic Connections
When we have grown up in relationships that were not particularly empathic, we may need to practice and consciously work on giving and receiving empathy. The good news is that giving and receiving empathy can be learned, or re-learned, and that if we practice, empathy can become a more natural and reflexive way of interacting with others.
* Adopt an attitude of interest and curiosity about your children’s experience. Rather than assume that you know, be curious about what they may be thinking, feeling and intending. Seek first only to understand their position.
* Take turns giving and receiving empathy. This can be easier said than done. We must be able to give the other person a turn at feeling heard, understood and appreciated. This entails putting our own feelings and perceptions temporarily aside, trusting that if we really listen to the other person, we will also get our turn to be heard and understood. And we must be willing to take our turn when it is offered; we must be willing to reveal our own thoughts and feelings in such a way as to help the other person understand what we feel and what we need or want. As parents, we need to “own” our needs rather than viewing children as “bad” for not recognizing them.
* First offer empathy, then work to solve the problem. This leads to productive, constructive negotiations, as well as to a better sense of connection. Often we want to skip immediately to problem solving, but this is bound to fail if neither person feels heard and understood. When we don’t take the time for mutual empathy, the conversation is likely to get stuck. When both members focus their energy on getting their perspectives across, problem solving is blocked. It is amazing how creativity is born in an empathic connection, when both parties feel understood.
* Try to prove the other person right. Look for the sense in what the other person is saying. Try to see the reasonableness of her position, especially if it is different from your own. Try to look for why the other person is valid in her viewpoint.
* Practice statements of empathy. Certain statements convey an attitude of empathy. Practice saying things like, “It makes sense that you would feel that way, given that…”
* Say what you need. Our chances of experiencing an empathic connection are much better if we know what we need from the other person and are able to express it in a way that the other person can hear. “I just need you to listen to me and understand where I’m coming from” or “I would really like your advice on how to handle this situation” are helpful prompts. So often we hope or assume that the other person knows what we need, even when we are not even sure ourselves about what kind of response we are seeking.
* Become aware of feelings and situations that make it difficult to empathize. Some feelings and behaviors are more difficult to empathize with than others. If someone is attacking you (verbally or physically) it is very difficult to empathize with him. No one would expect a victim to be able to empathize with the attacker. Another extremely difficult situation to empathize with is if you have caused the other person pain. Empathizing with his pain can stir our own feelings of guilt, shame or responsibility. When we frustrate or disappoint our children, we may want to avoid or deny the impact rather than to understand their pain.
* What we give is what we receive. Empathy begets empathy. If we want our children to be more empathic, we need to treat them with empathy.
* Make your goal understanding your child, rather than fixing, helping or directing them. When we have understanding as our primary goal, rather than trying to convince, teach, change or direct our children, we allow for an empathic connection to develop, which will naturally propel their forward movement.
* Have empathy for yourself. Rather than “beating yourself up” about your feelings, reactions, or behaviors, reflect on how they make sense given your circumstances. Finding empathy for yourself can help you move forward in a more positive direction.
Anne Paris, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of The Empathy Way, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), a collection of three children’s books that utilizes photographs (by Marian Brickner) of a community of real-life bonobo apes to increase empathy skills. Visit empathyway.com for more information.