There is no more important time for kids to know they are loved than when they misbehave. If the love message misses them then, they will grow to believe that love is conditional or earned. People who believe that love is earned tend to rise and fall with their performance, and compromise themselves for approval. Not what we want for our kids.
One way children know they’re loved is if you simply say so, not in a condescending way, but from your heart, right there while your kids are misbehaving. (Sound crazy? Just try it!) But another powerful, perhaps less-well-known way to express love is by expressing understanding, or empathy.
Empathy is about putting ourselves in our kids’ shoes, and feeling what it’s like to be them. This is good for both parents and kids. Because empathy only happens in a settled brain, it is impossible to be simultaneously angry and truly empathetic. So figuring out how a child feels will also help settle a parent down.
Once you identify your child’s emotions, you can become a mirror and simply tell them what you see, using words that help them to know you understand. “You’re sad!” or, “You’re angry!” will help the child know you get what it’s like to be them. But more significantly, beneath this simple act are powerful messages of love. “I understand you! You are not alone! I am for you.”
Communicating these messages doesn’t mean the child is now “off the hook,” but that you are with them and for them in the struggle, not against them. As children feel understood, if consequences are still needed, they are much more receptive to the consequences because they know, “You are LOVED no matter what!” And sometimes, as a bonus, just by empathizing, parents influence their children to self-correct their misbehavior.
Amy, the mom of a three-year-old, told us the following story (and then sent us a “reality show” video [click to watch] of the impact of her empathy).
Lizzie was distraught when she spilled on her favorite stuffed bunny and it had to be laundered. She screamed as Amy put the bunny into the front-loading washing machine with the rest of the clothes. Amy set firm boundaries, “This is not OK! You need to learn to get over it when things don’t go the way you want!” But her reminders seemed to fall on deaf ears as the bunny spun and spun in front of increasingly distressed Lizzie. As the tantrum escalated Amy remembered the simple idea – empathy often takes the fight out of a child’s tantrum.
So Amy took a moment to settle down herself. She realized it was OK for Lizzie to scream unattended for a bit so she could breathe and calm down. Then she returned to her still-screaming daughter, got down on her level, and said emphatically, “You really want your bunny, don’t you? You really want her!”
Lizzie continued crying, but immediately the edge went out of her wails. Amy continued, “You love that bunny, don’t you? Do you need a hug?” Lizzie climbed onto Amy’s lap.
Now Amy joined Lizzie in her sadness instead of suppressing it. She didn’t open the washing machine to give Lizzie the bunny — she just took the fight out of the interaction by empathizing. In just a few short moments, what was originally a power struggle to stop a tantrum became a valuable teaching moment that ended with Lizzie learning to empty the washing machine and start the load in the dryer. True discipline that connects!
In this instance, Amy’s empathy calmed Lizzie’s tantrum and empowered her to help with the dryer. That’s great. Life was more peaceful for both of them that day, and more importantly Lizzie felt loved in her misbehavior. But as Amy persists at expressing empathy to Lizzie in a variety of situations and emotions, she’ll accomplish a lot more than just quelling meltdowns.
A longer-term look (adapted from the work of Dr. John Gottman) shows that as parents empathize and build their child’s ability to identify their feelings, it builds five powerfully positive strengths:
- Self-awareness – I recognize and understand my own emotions
- Self-regulation – I calm and redirect my disruptive emotions and impulses
- Empathy – I understand and value other people’s feelings
- Social skills – I utilize insight for healthy relationships
- Motivation – I achieve because I know what’s important to me
So when your child acts out or throws a tantrum, why not try empathizing with their feelings? It’ll help you to react more calmly, help your kids to build emotional maturity, and most importantly communicate to your kids that they are loved unconditionally, no matter what!
Apply It Now:
- When was a time when you helped your upset child identify their emotions, or articulate what was really important to them?
- What was the result?
- How might you do that more often?
To learn more about this concept, request the ebook When Your Child Misbehaves: Four Strategies For Lasting Change