Kids are difficult, sometimes at least. They can be irritable, irrational, irresponsible, emotional, and sometimes a little wicked. And somehow it’s your job as a parent to protect, provide, and prune them in their upbringing. It’s a wild ride, a sometimes joyful and sometimes bewildering burden. But you have a secret weapon in almost every situation: Empathy.
As much as we’d like to think that we think our way through life, the truth is we usually react in feelings before we react in thoughts. When we see someone we like, we feel happy and only then think, “there’s my friend.” When bad things happen, we feel angry or scared or sad before we think through the best words to speak or deeds to do next. Our feelings are honest responses, even if, as mature people, we try to keep them to ourselves and avoid simply blurting out reactions. We don’t have to say or even show what we feel all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re not sad, disappointed, or angry sometimes. Kids too feel things first. They may or may not react with self-control, but their feelings are always real.
Empathy is paying attention and giving voice to what your child is feeling. It is acknowledging their lived reality. If your child is angry, you can say so. If they are sad, mad, or glad, you can name it. If your child seems disappointed, you can say, “You seem disappointed.” Doing so gives voice to the honest feelings in their hearts, and they will feel like you’ve taken the time to notice and care about their experience. If they seem anxious and fearful, or excited and thrilled, or bored silly, naming their emotions will always communicate that you’ve paid attention to their state of heart. It's a powerful first step in a parenting moment.
Stating what you see the child feeling takes some intention and attention on your part, but it’s just an observation. You’re just stating, or even guessing, what you think the child is feeling. If you’re off the mark, they may well correct your assessment, and try to state more accurately what they feel. “I’m not mad, just disappointed” or “I’m relieved, not sad!” You don’t have to be perfectly accurate, and you don't necessarily have to approve of their feelings. You certainly don't want to tell them that they should be feeling something different. At the start of the conversation, you can just try to label what their hearts are feeling.
The secret power of naming your child’s feelings is that it’s always a great first reaction from you as a parent. If your child is winning at a game, you can name the thrill. If your child is doing something for the first time, you can name the anticipation and anxiety. If your child is misbehaving, you can name their desire even as you redirect it. If your child is tantruming, you can name their anger even as you put limits on their behavior. In the good times and the bad times, even when you need to intervene and discipline, beginning with empathy sets a baseline that you see and acknowledge their honest feelings (feelings that may well be driving their behavior). Then you can move to something that might be more difficult, like rebuke or redirection, but you'll do so from a place of connectedness and relationship.
You could be domineering and simply lay down the law. But by paying attention to their hearts, you show first that you care about their experience, even as you give no ground. If they are behaving oddly or badly, you could just slap them down with a “Stop that!”, or you could ask, “What’s going on with you? You seem irritated.” The empathetic response opens the door to a conversation. Parents who want to feel in control will often have more influence and connection with their child if they use empathy rather than simply bark commands. Even if you don’t have time for a conversation, simple empathy can defuse the petty arguments. Imagine a tween who is resisting bedtime, avoiding it, arguing about it. You can say, “I understand you’re disappointed, and you’d rather stay up, but it’s time for bed.” You still set the limit, but you’ve shown they’ve been heard.
And this is the cost of empathy: you have to pay attention and wonder what’s going on inside their little hearts. You have to care and listen to someone who doesn’t have words to express their experience. You often have to react with a question rather than an exclamation point. You have to slow your own reaction (often irritation in the face of bad or defiant behavior) in order to ask where this behavior is coming from in the first place. It takes emotional intelligence and patience. But the payoff is a stronger relationship from which you can still be the parent.
Scripture famously says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” Proverbs 15:1). If you can do that, if you can bear the cost of patience, empathy is a weapon of defense against letting strong feelings damage relationships. If you react to an angry child with more anger, you're more likely to simply go to battle and try to beat the other into submission. If you can wonder where the anger is coming from, you have a chance to bring down the emotional temperature before it burns. Empathy is a disarming weapon used to knock down emotional walls before they get built too high. You can take a bad situation and use it to fuel growth. Empathy also shows the child you can be a safe place to take strong emotions, building trust for the long run.
Psychologists and pastors are trained to use empathy even when people around them experience strong emotions like anger, grief, or pain. Business executives use it to manage their teams well, showing their people that they care. But for them, as for parents, nothing about empathy means they give their power away. After all, it’s still just an observation to start the conversation. You can still discipline, you can still set limits, you can still be the boss. But you’ll be a parent who shows that they pay attention and care about the heart experience of those in your care.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster