Connect Through Empathy

Last week, two mothers stopped me in the hallway at my daughter’s school and said, “Pam!  We need help. Let’s see how good you are.” They were, of course, referring to needing help with some parenting issue. Ever since I’ve made myself known as a parenting “expert” among my friends, they love putting me to the test.


One of the mothers reported that she had just picked up her 4-year-old daughter, Mara, from her classroom and Mara wanted a snack. When the mother said she hadn’t brought a snack, Mara threw a tantrum and angrily scratched at her mother’s arms, leaving several marks.


Judging from the weary expression on Mara’s face and knowing that she had just completed a 7-hour school day, it seemed likely that she was exhausted. Under different circumstances, waiting for a snack might not have been as upsetting or caused such an outburst. Still, Mara’s behavior needed to be addressed.


After briefly mulling it over, I suggested that the mother try using empathy. She replied, “WHAT?  You mean saying, ‘I’m so sorry, my love. I’m sorry I didn’t bring a snack and your behavior is ok?’”


No, that’s not what I meant at all.


Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings by imagining yourself in his situation.


This takes practice. Very often, parents focus on being right, rather than on showing compassion for what their kids are going through. This sets up a dynamic of parent vs. child. Winner vs. loser. Right vs. wrong. If Mara’s mother had said, “Stop acting like a baby. You’ll have a snack when we get home,” she would have set up this sort of win-lose dynamic (aka “power struggle”).


On the other hand, when parents express empathy, their children feel more connected to them because they feel understood. Using empathy, Mara’s mother could have said, “I know you’re hungry after a long day of school and it’s upsetting that you can’t have a snack right now. It’s not okay to scratch Mommy when you’re upset.” In this situation, Mara’s mother doesn’t have to like Mara’s feelings, nor does she excuse Mara’s behavior.


Accepting her daughter’s feelings without trying to change or control them lets Mara know that she and her mom are on the same team. After parents express empathy, children are less defensive because they no longer have to protect their right to feel upset. Then, they become more open to learning new ways to manage their feelings, and are better able to accept behavioral limits and consequences.


DCF 1.0


Not long ago, my husband used empathy with our daughter, Marissa. I remember it clearly because I wasn’t feeling particularly compassionate at the time and his relaxed demeanor helped calm me down.


Marissa has a life-threatening allergy to all dairy products. She can’t have milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, etc. When Marissa was six, our babysitter told us about a kosher gelato store that served non-dairy gelato. Marissa was ecstatic! Gavin and I were excited, too, as we would finally get to take our daughter out for ice cream — an event many families take for granted.


One night after dinner, we decided to surprise Marissa by taking her to the gelato store. When we got there, it was closed in observance of a lesser-known Jewish holiday. We were all upset, but Marissa reacted with hysterical sobbing and howling. I felt thoroughly annoyed by her over-dramatic display of emotion.


Luckily, before I could respond, Gavin said, “Oh, honey. That’s so disappointing. You were really looking forward to having some ice cream and now the store is closed.” Marissa wailed even louder…I think because she then felt safe enough to really “let go.” Gavin calmly repeated himself, but did nothing to try to fix the situation or apologize (after all, no one was to blame and blame wouldn’t have solved anything anyway).


Empathy is not a manipulation tool to get your children to behave differently. Marissa must have cried another ten minutes in the car on the way home. Yet Gavin was able to stay connected to her, while communicating that she was entitled to her feelings, which weren’t “wrong,” and therefore didn’t need to be fixed.


Some parents I’ve worked with say they have trouble simply expressing empathy without trying to “fix” the problem, offer solutions, or make their children feel happier. Solving the problem isn’t the goal. Connecting is the goal. Why? Because connection is the key to creating meaningful and lasting relationships with your kids.


Just because Marissa didn’t stop crying doesn’t mean using empathy didn’t “work.” Marissa felt supported by her father in that moment because he accepted her feelings. He didn’t ignore them, try to change them, or dispute them. Each time he relates to her in this way, he reinforces their bond.


When Empathy is Insincere

It’s easy to say things like, “I know you’re disappointed” or “That must’ve been really hard for you” and sound insincere, especially when you add the word “but” afterwards. For example, “I know you’re disappointed that the ice cream store was closed, but it’s not the end of the world.” Or for a teenager, “You must be really upset, but maybe next time you’ll remember to call ahead.”


These responses cast blame and dismiss the child’s feelings. They do nothing to form a connection. They’re attempts to get the child to see the situation from your perspective, not the other way around. Your child will be much more open to seeing your point of view once he feels that you understand his.


How have you used empathy to connect with your kids? Have you ever been on the receiving end of empathy? How did it feel? Please share your experiences in the comments section below and, as always, thanks for reading!


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Showing 4 comments
  • Laura

    Very true, Pam. Thank you for sharing. We are dealing with some emotional outbursts and how to handle ourselves when we are angry and mad. I have been reminding my young boys that it’s okay to be sad, mad or angry at whatever the situation may have been. I try to empathesize with their feelings of being upset. With that said, our focus with them is how to handle that emotional intensity without getting into more trouble by lashing out physically and verbally, against friends or family. I try to validate their feelings and remove ourselves from the situation that brews that emotional intensity. This allows me to be more empathetic mom and makes for better connected time somewhere safe like a bedroom, away from the source of the displeasure.

  • Beth

    Wow, this is timely for me today. My daughter who is a high school senior in the process of hearing from colleges. It’s tempting to tell her, “it’s ok, don’t worry that you didn’t get into your first choice, but you’ll be happy where you do go,” or “it’s not your fault, there were so many kids from your school applying there this year,” or any of the things we tell our kids thinking it will make them feel better. You’re right, what they want to hear is that we understand how they feel, and that’s it! I learned this the hard way in the fall when she was deferred from her early decision school. I was empathetic, but also editorialized, and it blew up in my face. If the decisions that arrive in the next few weeks aren’t what she wants, I can mirror my daughter’s emotions, “you must feel really badly, I know how much you wanted that…” and say nothing else. It’s really a case of less is more. Thank you for the reminder. Of course, I’ll keep hoping that she gets what she wants…

    • Pam Howard

      I’ll keep my fingers crossed for her, Beth!

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