Many discouraged parents have asked us this question: How should we respond to our child who doubts the reality of God?
When children suggest “there is no God” it’s natural for parents to immediately try to convince them otherwise. It’s a good intention, but one that often deepens the chasm between kids’ doubts and their movement toward God. If this is your reality, understand that there is probably little you can say, (because they’ve probably heard all the arguments before) but much that you can DO to make it safe for your kids to struggle back toward Jesus when they have doubts.
Two-year-old Sam asked for milk while waiting for breakfast. His mom, Rebekah, was happy to oblige and poured him a small cup. Sam was at a curious, exploratory stage of life. He didn’t want the milk so much for drinking, but for a little science experiment about liquids and gravity. So he poured it all out. Onto himself.
Our faces. They say a lot to our kids. Before the first words roll off our tongue, we’ve already begun communicating.
Studies show that between 60% – 90% of all communication is nonverbal, with 55% related to the face alone.*
Take a common scenario like your child leaving a trail of food, wrappers, or toys. What might go through your mind at a time like that? “I’ve talked to him about this for weeks, numerous times a day, and nothing has changed! This place is constantly a mess!”
One of the best times to show love to your kids is when they are misbehaving. Anger, frustration and lecturing are standard reactions to a kid who does something wrong, but do they work to change behavior? I worked with many troubled kids before I co-founded Connected Families with Lynne and learned quite a few things about the messages kids receive (and don’t receive) when they are getting a consequence. Many kids who did something wrong, already defined themselves as “bad.” Undeserving of love. Yet, this is not how God responds to our sin, even when we are at our worst. (See Romans 3:23-24.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”