Empathy and How to “Get It”

As I walked out of my daughters’ school the other day, I witnessed an exasperated mother pleading with her toddler to stop crying. Soon, the begging turned to ordering, while the toddler’s wailing and howling became louder and louder.

 

I recalled times that I, too, had directed my children to stop crying and how it inevitably made the situation worse and prolonged the behavior I wished would stop.

 

Whenever my kids push my buttons and I feel utterly powerless, parenting requires me to do something that feels completely unnatural to help turn the situation around: see it from their perspective.

 

Carl Jung said, “What you resist persists.” When your child is upset and having a tantrum — whether she’s a toddler or a teenager — arguing, denying, or resisting their experience will only make them scream louder to be heard.

 

Want them to calm down? They need to feel heard. They need to know you GET IT. That you understand what they’re going through (even if you don’t agree with it).

 

This is so hard to do when we just want them to LISTEN TO US. We think, “If only they’d heed my advice and learn from my experiences. If only they’d listen to me!”

 

But the reality is that as a parent, YOU need to understand your child before she’ll be open to learning anything from you.

 

You’re not a bad parent because your child is crying. Kids cry. A lot. And it’s ok. It’s not a sign that they’re weak or immature. It’s just their way of communicating that something’s upsetting them because they don’t know how to express it any other way at that moment.

 

This might sound silly or fake at first (remember – this stuff doesn’t come naturally), but just reflect back to them what you observe:

 

“You’re upset. You’re really upset right now. You wanted to press the elevator button and I did it instead. That’s so disappointing.”

 

Inside you might be thinking, “Geez, kid. It’s just a stupid elevator button. What’s the big deal? Get over it already.”

 

But to your child, it IS a big deal.

 

Suppose you locked yourself out of your car and had to spend the next couple of hours waiting around for someone to come help you retrieve them. In the meantime, you missed an important meeting at work that resulted in losing money for your company. Now imagine that you called a trusted friend to share how upset you were and her response was, “Well, maybe next time you’ll be more careful about where you put your keys.” Or “Quit complaining. It’s just money. Get over it.”

 

You’d probably think twice before calling that “friend” again. You’d want her to be just as upset as you were. You’d want her to validate and support you. Just knowing you had her in your corner would help you relax a bit. The last thing you’d want is to be lectured on responsibility or told that your feelings weren’t justified.

 

Get it?

 

Your child really NEEDS you to GET THIS more than anything.

 

When your child feels heard, understood, and validated, she’ll feel calmer and more connected to you. When she’s calm and connected, she’ll be waaaay more likely to listen to your valuable wisdom and parental guidance.

 

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

 

 

For more about this, read Connect Through Empathy.

 

In the comments below, tell me: Did you ever feel like your own parents didn’t “get it?” What was that like for you? How did it make you feel? How did it impact your relationship?

 

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Showing 7 comments
  • Helen Butler
    Reply

    Oh my gosh Pam, asking about our own parents really struck a chord with me! I always felt like the “weird” one and found it very hard to conform (I still do! I think being different is a good thing!). My mother was always the hardest on me and still is. Seems we both still have a lot to learn about each other. Thanks for another brilliant, thought-provoking post. Xx

  • Stacy
    Reply

    Pam, while I agree with the concept of empathizing with your children, I don’t think that parents should equate how an adult would feel with how a child would feel. An adult friend acting like an unsympathetic jerk is a totally different scenario than a parent trying to help a small child learn to control tantrums. The parent-child relationship can and should have a different dynamic from adult-adult relationships.

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Stacy,

      Thanks for your comment! When kids throw tantrums, it’s a sign that they’re having a problem (not being a problem) and need us to help them through it. I agree that adult relationships and parent-child relationships are different, but the feelings elicited in both scenarios here are the same. Many parents think that showing empathy means agreeing with the child or somehow giving in to his demands. That’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s been my experience that showing empathy helps kids control their tantrums because being heard helps calm them down. Then they’re better able to hear whatever we have to say. In this particular kind of scenario, is there another way you’ve helped a child calm down? xo

  • Kristy
    Reply

    Pam, I love the Carl Jung quote. It’s so true.

    This post is such a good reminder about just how important or EQ (emotional intelligence) is, perhaps even more so than our IQ.

    It’s such a good reminder to look at situations children are experiencing through their eyes. Children don’t have the same hindsight and life experiences that we do as adults, so often things on their “catastrophe scale” are all 10. I’ve used a modified catastrophe scale with children and it really helps them to realise the magnitude of problems or situations.

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Hi Kristy! I’m intrigued by the idea of a “catastrophe scale.” Can you give us a more detailed example of how you use it?

  • emilie yunger
    Reply

    Totally agree,, my parents just laid down the rules..no exceptions, understanding of. .. “me”. I took off half way around the world ” to Be”…..Don ‘ t think i succeeded very well Not doing that with my kids…. much better than my parents though. Doing a great job with my grandson I think.. ( it really does ttime to break old habits ) Thanx Pam.. wish I knew someone like you when I had my kids…

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Emilie – the good news is that you DO know me when you have your kids — and empathy can go a loooong way with your adult children, too! It’s never too late and it only takes one person to make a shift in old patterns. Sending you lots of love!

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