Disciplining misbehaving kids is often a difficult and emotion-laden task. Our oldest son Daniel, sometimes said to Lynne, “Mom, you just bursted all over us!” And he was painfully right. Jim had his share of quick, harsh reactions as well. Those were discouraging times for all of us, and we wished we knew how to get unstuck from that negative pattern.
Heading back to school can be an anxious and stressful time for kids — and for parents, too! New schedules, new notebooks, new teachers and classmates add up to a lot of excitement and oftentimes, anxiety. All that change can get everyone in the family into a tizzy. One important element to consider is the way in which a parent or caregiver can intentionally help children face the upcoming school year, especially if they are feeling nervous about school. Here are a few proactive tips to help smooth the transition this fall:
When kids feel safe with us and truly understood, they usually will open their hearts. This allows us to walk alongside them in the vulnerable journey of learning about emotions and empathy for others.
As we embark on this journey with them, the more creative and non-judgmental we are, the more they can learn.
Today we’ll look at how to approach teaching kids empathy from the last two principles in our Framework: Coach and Correct.
Developing empathy for others is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids. It’s a “must have” if we want to equip them for healthy intimate relationships in life.
Every child is capable of learning empathy, but it can be quite difficult to learn (especially if your child is experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress in life).
In fact, often we expect our kids to just “know” how to be empathetic, even when things are stressful. In the heat of conflict, I may ask, “Do you know how [your sibling] feels right now!?” and expect my child to be able to give an insightful answer.
If our kids really could respond insightfully at that point, they might say something like this: “Regretfully, I don’t know how my sibling feels. My brain is in a fight/flight state, and my amygdala has shut down what little there is of my still quite immature frontal lobe, including the section* where I can process empathy. So my sister might as well be speaking Wookie.”
Clearly, the starting point for teaching kids empathy is not in the heat of the moment.
We learned this pretty quickly with our kids. Our oldest son, Daniel, was dealing with the stress of an extremely gifted brain and intense emotions. He didn’t easily “step into another person’s shoes” or perspective, especially when upset. Bethany generally understood others’ feelings but had difficulty verbalizing her own during conflict resolution. Our youngest, Noah, was a happy-go-lucky guy who simply didn’t think about feelings a lot. We had our work cut out for us.
We learned some practical ways to help all our kids develop the rich emotional insight that has equipped them for wonderful relationships in life – with each other and others. The framework that guided us in our early years was particularly helpful in this challenge of developing empathy.
Let’s take a look at how each level of the Framework informs our approach to developing empathy in our kids.
Recently we received this story from Joel and Amy Nelson, parents of two sons, who have previously shared their story here. Enjoy!
Parenting may not come with a manual, but I sure have read a lot of the parenting books out there! One common message that I encountered in my reading was, in all that you do, “be consistent”.
This logic was all well and good, except when I was not in a good place to address the situation calmly because of what was going on inside of me – exasperation, frustration, or just plain being tired and worn out from a day. If one of my sons challenged me during these times, it was “game on”.
It typically would start with me giving a consequence just because I was mad. “If you do that one more time, you will lose (insert favorite item here) for one day.” Then, if there was any whining, it was, “OK, that’s two days!” Then after the pouty huffing, “OK, one week, do you want more?” Then after the slammed door, “OK, A MONTH!!!” And then, there I was — stuck in the consequences I had given, having to “be consistent” and follow through.
Everyone would agree that loving our children is one of the most important things a parent can do.
But sometimes expressing that love isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sarafina wrote about a breakthrough she had in learning to connect with an extremely angry child:
There’s a parenting pitfall that nearly all parents get stuck in at some point: “If my child behaves well, I am a good parent. If my child misbehaves, I am a bad parent.” Stated so bluntly, it’s obviously not true, but it is still a powerful and subtle belief for nearly all parents.
This belief can cause parents to change their perspective (and therefore their mood) quickly based on their children’s behavior. That inevitable wild outburst in a store becomes a great embarrassment because it’s about the parent’s failure. This drives the parent to overreact in order to get the child under control. The overreaction then leads the parent to make further conclusions about being a bad parent. Defining parenting by a child’s behavior puts tremendous pressure on the child to “get it right.” This usually has very negative results for the child and for the parent as they both ride an emotional roller coaster together, overreacting to the normal ups and downs of children’s behavior.
I had a good opportunity to test this in myself the day our youngest son Noah got caught lighting matches in the church.
“I hate you!” There are certainly plenty of parents who have heard those disrespectful words.
Some parents are deeply hurt (“I can’t believe you would say that, after all I do…”) while others get intensely angry (“It’s not okay to talk to me like that!”). Parents often feel attacked and unsure about how to respond.
A popular parenting approach suggests when a child says “I hate you” or a similar comment, that parents respond with “Aren’t you glad I don’t believe that?” At first glance this may seem like a clever, calm way to respond, but it also is pretty condescending, communicating a message that, “When you’re upset, you are a liar” or “Your thoughts and feelings are unimportant, even invalid to me.”
So how can we really get to the root of the issue when our kids yell that they hate us?