Empathy: Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Empathy:
Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s plight, including his or her behavior and the motivations for a given act. It means being able to comprehend the circumstances in which a person acts, and both the intellectual reasons and the feelings (emotions) that help motivate a particular act.

Parental empathy means that the parent is “tuned in” to the way a child thinks and feels in a given circumstance, and that the parent accepts those thoughts and feelings as legitimate age-appropriate motivations for behavior, even if the parent disagrees with those reasons or doesn’t like the way the child feels. This empathic understanding can have a profound effect on how the parent reacts to the child. Let’s consider some examples. I’ll come back to them later.

Some Examples

Example #1. Let’s say a daughter misses her mother who is away on a business trip, and throws more tantrums than usual, and tells Dad she doesn’t like him, or that he never lets her do what she wants. It’s possible that the child’s crying and tantrums might be related to the fact that her mother is not around and she misses her. Empathy means that, if this is so, Dad will pick up on it and be inclined to let her know that he understands how much she misses mama instead of just blowing up at her.

Example #2. Children of separated or divorced parents often present many difficult behaviors that appear to have no obvious rational basis. Still, most children of divorced or separated parents suffer a great deal, and sometimes for a long time, wishing their parents were together or had been able to make the marriage work. So it is entirely possible that a child’s erratic behavior is rooted in the child’s pain. (See “Feel Good, Do Good; Feel Bad, Do Bad.”) By “pain” here I mean painful emotions such as loss, sadness, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or anger over a wide range of concerns a child might have. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for separated parents who are suffering their own emotional pain and are preoccupied with day-to-day survival issues, to have no idea that their child is suffering so intensely, and that this suffering may be at the root of the child’s erratic behavior.

Example #3. Imagine that your teenage son is angry and swearing at you because you said “No” to his demand to use the car tonight. He’s ranting that “You’re the lousiest mother I know! None of my friends has a mother that always says No like you do. All you ever want me to do is be stuck in this boring house, without having any fun. You’re a real dumb-ass, Mom, you know that? And besides, you’re making me look bad!” This example contains an added challenge for Mom: the insult. How can a parent be empathic with that?

Five Components of Empathy

So far I have been trying to make one main point: being empathic means being able to put oneself in another person’s place and genuinely understand his or her behavior in terms of the thoughts and feelings that motivate it in a given set of circumstances.

Beyond the basic description of what empathy is, I believe there are five components or skills that go into a parent’s ability to really have empathy for a child. For some people this all comes naturally, and they are normally very empathic people, and sometimes hear that they are “very understanding.” For others, however, being empathic does not come so easily. So I want to break the “empathic process” down into what I consider its five essential components. These are:

  1. Listening for clues
  2. Relating to personal experience
  3. Withholding judgment
  4. Labeling the emotion
  5. Expressing the empathy.

1. Listening for Clues

The act of being fully “present” to a child, or fully attentive to the child’s verbal and non-verbal communications, involves really listening–with both ears and eyes. It is the first step to being able to understand his behavior in terms of the thoughts and feelings that motivate and determine it.

2. Connecting to Personal Experience

This introspective skill entails an ability to reflect on, be aware of, and allow oneself to experience one’s own emotions. It means that the parent is able to relate the child’s experience (circumstances, behavior, thoughts, and feelings) to some similar experience (circumstances, behavior, thoughts, and feelings) in the parent’s own life. There’s the realization that, “Oh, I know what it’s like to be in his predicament.”

3. Withholding Judgment

This is a tough one. Withholding judgment is a skill that requires a certain attitude, presence of mind in the heat of the moment, and some will power. The non-judgmental attitude is one that does not regard emotions as bad. They just are. They might feel good or feel bad, but in and of themselves they are not bad. The expression of an angry feeling might be hurtful (“I hate you!”) or inappropriate, or even insulting and disrespectful (“You’re a real dumb-ass!”). But the emotion of anger itself isn’t a bad thing–it’s a quite natural reaction, like any emotion.

So, what about disrespectful expressions of emotion?

Being non-judgmental about a child’s unacceptable expression of emotions is also a part of empathy. It may be harder than not judging the emotion itself, but it is part and parcel of an empathic stance. It means that the parent can understand and appreciate that the child is voicing intense emotions in an immature or unacceptable way because s/he is in fact immature, or just doesn’t know a better way of doing it, or is primitively lashing out and trying to be hurtful. Withholding judgment about unacceptable behavior does not mean the parent considers that behavior is okay and should be overlooked. Rather, it means putting off the judgment and a response till the child’s motivation is addressed. In the example of the angry teenager, for example, the parent can always go back later and let him know that “I really didn’t appreciate being called a dumb-ass, John. I don’t like that kind of talk, and I wish you wouldn’t do it.”

Finally, withholding judgment is a lot like not taking things personally. This is obviously not so easy, but it is definitely the high road and definitely a part of empathy. (See my “How to Not Take It Personally.”) Don Miguel Ruiz presents very sound advice, with very sound reasoning behind it, for never taking anything personally in his wonderful little book, The Four Agreements. As parents work at being empathic with their children, they actually do learn to withhold judgment and not take rude, hurtful, or damaging comments and behavior personally. It’s a challenge to be sure, but it’s a very powerful skill that is of enormous help to the parent, first of all, and secondly to the child. Practicing it is worth every bit of the effort required.

4. Labeling the Feeling

Beyond the ability to listen for clues, relate the child’s experience to something in her own experience, and withholding judgment, the parent must be able to put the correct label on the child’s feelings. This, too, may not be so easy. It’s one thing to be able to label anger as a motivation for a child’s hurtful “I hate you!” But it’s quite another thing to be able to perceive and acknowledge the pain he is feeling beneath (or along with) the anger. As I always like to say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there’s anger, there’s pain.” By this I mean that anger is really a “secondary” emotion that always accompanies (and often masks) a deeper, and painful, feeling such as disappointment, hurt, or fear. This deeper, painful feeling is often referred to as the “primary” feeling. Examples of such painful “primary” feelings that can accompany anger are:

afraid, scared          angry, mad        sad, depressed      hurt, insulted
nervous, anxious     frustrated           ashamed, guilty     embarrassed
jealous, envious      irritated              disappointed          humiliated
vengeful, hateful      upset                 loss, lonely           helpless

Can you identify these in yourself when you experience them? Are there any that you cannot recall ever having experienced in your life? Are there some that you might try to avoid, ignore, or suppress when they spring up? Which ones are most easy for you to spot in another person, particularly your child? Which ones might be most difficult to spot in your child?

The range of emotions is unfamiliar territory for a lot of people. Being aware of them in oneself is an important intrapersonal skill, and as such a critical relationship skill. Being aware off them both in oneself and in the child, and also being able to put a label on them, may be challenging for many parents, especially if their own emotions are running high. But since they play such a monumental role in determining all people’s behavior, it is really important for parents to direct their conscious awareness to this aspect of their own and their children’s experience.

5. Expressing Empathy

Finally, in addition to the parent’s ability to understand the child’s thoughts and feelings, relate them to personal experience, withhold judgment, and put a name on the feelings, empathy requires that the parent express that understanding verbally or non-verbally. (A hug may at times be of far more empathic value than verbal expression of that understanding.) It’s not enough to say or think, “Oh, I know why you’re doing that (or talking like that),” or “I understand why you did (or said) that, but…” An empathic verbal response means the parent puts into words the actual feeling or thinking process that he thinks the child is experiencing internally.

Children of all ages, but especially young children, need this kind of verbalization to help them learn which words to associate with their emotions and (of equal importance) to hear that their parent really does understand how they are feeling, and does not condemn them for it.

Empathic Responses to the Examples

Now let’s apply these principles to the three examples given at the beginning.

In example #1, the tantrums, Dad might say something like the following. “I know you miss mama, honey. And that must make it harder to have me telling you what to do.” And he stops right there. He wants to see how she responds to what he said.

In example #2, the divorce situation, Dad might say, “I understand that you miss your mom, and I don’t blame you. I know you love her. Not seeing her everyday must be very hard.” And then he stops right there. He wants to see how the child responds to what he said.

In example #3, the angry teenage son, Mom might say, “I know it hurts to be embarrassed in front of your friends, and to look bad. I don’t like that feeling myself.” Mom might easily get hooked into a defensive or self-righteous response or an argument. She might impetuously impose a punishment for the foul-mouthed insult (“You’re a real dumb-ass”). Or, she might even be tempted to slap his face. But if she is able to be present and stand her ground silently, listening to the verbal barrage, she might be able to hear the clue at the end – “…you’re making me look bad.” If she values empathy, and is able to avoid getting defensive and angry herself, she’ll hear the clue that he is “looking bad” to someone, probably his friends. And what could be more painful to a teenager? In the heat of the moment, this kind of empathic realization on Mom’s part might make all the difference between a nasty negative outcome and a more caring positive outcome. At least her empathy would give her a chance to work toward the latter.

Taking a critical, judgmental attitude, or expressing it, can be harmful, as in “Hey, it’s only for a week, and then she’ll be back. So get over it.” If Mom or Dad did not suffer the trauma of her own parents’ crumbling marriage and then divorce, it might be difficult indeed to fully comprehend the child’s nasty or insulting comments about their parenting decisions. But that doesn’t mean a parent can’t be empathic to the pain of an important loss, because we’ve all had painful losses. It’s just that not having lived through parents’ divorce might make empathy harder.

The Power of Empathy

There is perhaps no single skill more powerful in any relationship than that of empathic understanding and expression. The late psychologist Carl Rogers, a major force in the development of humanistic psychology, taught and wrote extensively about the power of empathy in facilitating personal growth in a wide variety of settings and situations. Other authors who address parents specifically are quite eloquent about empathy and its power, as well as its many forms of expression with children. Two of my favorites are John Gottman and Thomas Gordon, who are well recognized authorities, as is Rogers. All three of these authors do far more justice to this critical topic than I, and I highly recommend any of their books to parents who wish to grow in a way that has enormous potential to also help both children and adults grow as persons.

Implications of Empathy for Discipline

Beyond the enormous potential of parental empathy to facilitate a child’s trust of her parent and her growth as a person, there is another highly practical benefit for the parent-child relationship that I consider essential to a New School approach to how to be a parent.

When a parent can understand, label, and express his understanding of a child’s motivation for any given act, the parent can much more easily negotiate an agreement with the child that is, in effect, a commitment on the child’s part to do something the parent wants. This is done through the process of dialogue, where the parent takes the lead in both listening empathically and speaking his mind honestly and respectfully.

I call this approach “co-creative discipline” because in the process of genuine dialogue no one knows ahead of time where it will end up. The focus of any genuine dialogue, where both parties are speaking openly and honestly and being heard by each other, may take unusual twists and turns. Ideas may pop up in one person’s mind and be voiced within the context of a seemingly unrelated topic. Children often come up with novel ideas and suggestions, even about their own behaviors and positive or negative consequences. Parents in my classes routinely express surprise and admiration for ideas generated by their children in the course of a good discussion. So I like to say that a child’s ideas are always worth listening to in a dialogue about behaviors and consequences, even if the child is just two years old.

In fact, my first rule of thumb is “Listen first, talk second,” because when the parent hears whatever the child has to say (and hearing it is not always easy), the parent learns something. This means he is more capable of giving an empathic response that encourages the child to share more. One of my three listening techniques (which, with practice, become skills) is asking questions. Another is acknowledging what the child says, and the third is reflecting back to the child what the parent hears as her feeling or intention. It’s this third technique that verbalizes empathy. (Thomas Gordon refers to this technique as “active listening.”) One of the purposes of using these listening techniques is to let the child know that he is being heard and understood, that his thoughts and feelings are valued. This serves to invite the child to share more of his ideas and feelings. Parental expression of empathy is a powerful invitation to the child to do just that.

Parents in my classes often complain that their child will not speak openly about important matters. My response is that, aside from any speech impediment issues, the child is probably afraid to say what he really thinks or feels. And, since the parent cannot “pull it out of him,” or make him talk, the best the parent can do is invite him to speak openly and honestly, and make it safe for him to do so by being non-judgmental. I know of no better way for a parent to do this than by the use of empathic communication.

A father in one of my classes related how his new awareness of empathy changed his relationships with his two teenage sons most dramatically. One day, after we had discussed some of these ideas in class, he noticed that one of his sons seemed despondent. He commented on it by saying, “You look sad. Is anything bothering you?” This empathic comment along with the invitation to talk, opened up a stream of dialogue between father and son that had never happened before. The father paid attention to what his son had to say regarding his emotions. The conversation went so well that others soon followed, and the other son began approaching Dad about topics that mattered to him. Before long father and sons were talking about something big and unexpected: how the sons might be involved in helping Dad run his small business. Needless to say, Dad was overjoyed at how effective his attempts at expressing empathy were in bringing harmony into those relationships, and the marvelous agreements that started to emerge from those dialogues.

Conclusion

Kids can readily tell when a parent stops trying to force them to do things, to obey orders, to carry out commands, and obey rules. These are all invitations to trouble that practically all parents employ automatically. But when the parent shifts gears, and starts instead to express empathy for the child’s plight (i.e, circumstances, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings), then things start to change, often miraculously. With empathic expression as a substitute for anger and punishments, the potential for real dialogue and voluntary behavior change in the child increases dramatically.

When the parent consciously uses empathic communication as she works to secure agreements with the child instead of trying to force compliance, the child is almost “magically” freed up to voluntarily cooperate in ways that the parent desires, without feeling pressured or beaten into submission. Children not only notice an attitude change on the empathic parent’s part, but they appreciate it too. When they realize that the parent accepts and respects the fact that they (just like their parents) always do what they want to do by making choices that have consequences, they actually start to want to cooperate with the parent. I hear this all the time from parents. It shows that kids want their parents’ approval, and (believe it or not) they actually understand their parents’ reasons for wanting responsible behavior from them. That’s quite an unexpected disciplinary dividend on the empathic investment. And it all begins with parental empathy.
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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my ebook  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model (power, control, and punishments) and the New School Parenting model (dialogue, agreements, and accountability). The ideas contained here represent a shift from parenting harder to parenting smarter. They can transform a stressed parent-child relationship from conflict and arguments to one of cooperation and harmony. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.
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