When kids melt down, we often counsel parents to respond with empathy. When you truly understand your struggling child, it strongly communicates the essential message, “You are loved no matter what!” Often, communicating empathy in the midst of misbehavior takes the wind out of kids’ sails of defiance or anger.
But occasionally we have parents say, “It didn’t work!” Reading between the lines, this can be translated, “I empathized and said what I thought my child was feeling, and nothing changed. I didn’t get the behavior I was looking for.”
So what happened?
Perhaps your kids didn’t believe you. Perhaps empathy wasn’t what they needed. Perhaps your furrowed brow or your crossed arms or your short tone gave you away.
Kids can sniff out a superficial strategy as a means to manipulate them. And that’s a good thing:
- It can protect them in the long run from manipulative people
- It holds us accountable to be sincere
As with any parent “method,” it’s not the method but the message that is important. (And sometimes the real message we communicate to our children may be mostly through our non-verbal communication.)
Parents who dive in with, “I understand you’re really upset, but… (let me unload my agenda)” are not really empathizing but rather manipulating.
So next time you toss your child a little “cheap empathy” and “it doesn’t work”, try saying to your child, “I was saying the right words, but I don’t know if I really understood. I’m glad you detected that. Say more about what you are feeling.”
And be glad that your child knows to resist someone who says the right things to get what they want.