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.
Tatyana GI | iStockphoto.com
In my role as a parenting speaker I do a lot of role plays with people in the audience. Though I had seen a lot of yelling, whining, and laughter from these role plays, I had never seen tears — but recently that changed.
Andrew Feinberg | Flickr
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.”
David K | Flickr
When kids melt down, we often advise parents to respond with empathy, by saying out loud what the kiddo might be feeling. But sometimes we can communicate everything we need to — without words.
SerrNovik | iStockphoto.com
At a recent ski meet I found myself twice in tears for people I’ve never met. The first time was when a young competitor “skied out,” meaning he missed a gate and was disqualified from the race. Nearby his parents gasped and grew visibly angry.
I understand being upset by my kids’ failures. We want what’s best for our kids and when they hurt, for better or worse, we tend to hurt with them when they make mistakes. But these parents weren’t just hurt. They were angry. I later learned that when they met their son following the race they scolded him, saying things like, “Do you know how much we spent to be here! Can’t you concentrate for just one minute?! What is wrong with you!”
Recently we received this question from a parent:
Q: How should we respond to our children (middle school, high school and college) who insist there is no God?
My first impulse in responding to people who “insist there is no God” is to show them how wrong they are to hold that belief. I mean, look around, right? It takes a lot of faith to believe everything came from nothing. But “people” denying God’s existence is much different than MY KIDS denying that God exists and turning from their (our) faith. That creates sleepless nights, desperate pleas and crying out to God. It also tends to lead parents into anxious lobbying for their point of view when in fact, there is probably very little new that parents can say.
Aside from the conventional wisdom about this (which we fully embrace) to pray, to speak truth, and to love them, here are some less common ideas that have been shown to have powerful influence with children over time.
© 2008 anthony kelly, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Julia was fed up. Her kids fought daily about their responsibilities, and Julia was at the end of her patience. Daily power struggles were beginning to define their relationships as the kids grew more discouraged and Julia more determined to stop the “misbehavior.” So Julia came to us for help.
As we sat and talked, it was clear from Julia’s description of her children’s behavior that there was more going on than mere misbehavior. We discussed how kids’ “misbehavior” is often just the tip of the iceberg of hunger, discouragement, anxiety, or tiredness. Julia went away from her session with a resolve to better understand both her challenging son Josh and her daughter Ashley, and help them better understand themselves. She wrote this report in preparation for our next session:
© 2009 tamckile, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Kids usually do the best they know how to express their feelings. The best they can do is usually quite immature and unrefined. A problem occurs when, instead of validating our kids’ feelings when they do the best they can to express them and helping them learn to give feelings appropriate words, we minimize, invalidate, or even punish their expression.
© 2009 Natalie Lucier, Flickr
Sometimes conflict with our kids can seem to arise out of nowhere. Or, a conversation that seemed to be over something relatively minor can explode with little warning into a full-fledged battle.
Why does this happen?
A lot of the time, it’s because of emotions under the surface.
Watch the video below to hear about the time I discovered an iceberg of emotions in the middle of a conflict with my daughter, Bethany.