We hear a lot of talk about empathy these days. “Kids need their feelings affirmed,” is a far cry from “Kids need to be seen and not heard,” the familiar mantra from days past. Is a soft and squishy response to our children’s behavior really going to help anything? Turns out, the answer is a resounding Yes.
What is empathy, and how can we actually employ it, not only in our interactions with our children, but in all of our relationships? Empathy is defined as having three key ingredients: affect detection, imaginative transposition, and boundary formation. Affect detection is the ability to detect a change in the emotional disposition of someone else. This requires a basic understanding of the expression of different emotions, in yourself and in others.
Are you comfortable with your own emotions? Brain Rules for Baby author John Medina says that your meta-emotion philosophy (what you feel about feelings – your own or other people’s) predicts how you will react to their emotional lives, which in turn predicts how (or if) they learn to regulate their own emotions. “You have to be comfortable with your emotions in order to make your kids comfortable with theirs.” In her book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber notes that, “the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our ‘mother tongue.’ Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods.”
One of most effective tools we can use, in both being comfortable with emotions and practicing empathy, is that of labeling emotions, first our own, and then our kids’. In much the same way that children can understand language before they can express it, they experience the physiological characteristics of emotional responses before they can identify them. According to Medina, “Labeling emotions calms big feelings.” That’s why it is so critical that we help them to label these feelings, even at an early age, perhaps especially at an early age. Faber states: “Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.”
Where do we start? Begin to label your own emotions in front of your children. Do this as a matter-of-fact exercise as situations arise, not as a contrived, “We’re going to work on labeling emotions” lecture. When you realize you’re out of apples, you can say, “I’m so disappointed! I really wanted to take an apple in my lunch today,” or “That makes me so mad when someone cuts in front of me when I’m driving!” Kids can perceive comments such as these as manipulative when it involves them, so be careful not to play the martyr (“I worked all day to clean up this house, and you came home and left your shoes out. That makes me so sad! How could you do that to me?!”) Also, this is not an excuse to share every emotion you feel in such a way that your child feels responsible for making you happy. Rather, use the opportunities that present themselves as teachable moments and keep your focus on giving the emotion a name.
In my next post, Empathy: The Foundation of Effective Parenting Part Two, I discuss the two other pieces of the empathy puzzle, imaginative transposition and boundary formation, as well as share more practical ideas for helping children learn empathy.
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