Showing Compassion and Empathy to Our Kids

The last article in this series outlined the concept of counterwill: If kids feel they’re being told what to do, they are less likely to be cooperative (even if it’s something fun!). Counterwill is part of necessary healthy development. Knowing this we can reframe our child’s behaviour and respond with compassion and empathy versus anger and exasperation. So, how do we do this?
Reflective Listening. Empathy is simply recognizing our children’s feelings. It can seem awkward at first, but over time it becomes more natural with practice.  This involves acting in such a way that our children feel listened to and understood. When your children come to you and say something, reflect what they are saying, with their words, their body language and their feelings. This is not the time to try to find solutions or give advice. This is really just a matter of repeating back what your child says to you. Acknowledge their feelings without judgement.
As adults, we often minimize our children’s feelings inadvertently. For example, if your child won’t go to bed because of “monsters under the bed,” it’s easy to say, “Don’t be scare sill, there is no such thing.” Most people do this with the intent of helping the child by dispelling that monsters exist. In reality, what this does is negate their fear without validating that feeling. What our kids really need is a supportive adult who hears them and tries to understand their perspective. It’s not often rational to us, but it’s reality for them, so it is important to respect that. When we try to understand, we are creating a relationship where our kids want to come to talk to us because they know their thoughts will be validated.
I always hear teens saying to their parents, “you don’t understand.” They’ll run away, slam doors, shut down and feel isolated, resentful, and angry. It is during these times in particular when we need to be patient, help label their feelings, and figure out effective ways to handle them. Acknowledge their feelings as legitimate and valid, communicating how you can see the situation from their point of view. This works for any age.
For example, one morning my daughter was screaming because she realized she ate the last of her Halloween candy and wanted more. At first I started to reason with her that she at it all, which only escalated the screams. I took a step back and said, “You want candy” (because that was what she was screaming). She immediately got quiet and said, “Yeah.” I said, “You’re pretty sad because it’s all gone.” She said, “Yeah. Want to play with me Mommy?” and that was the end of that. Obviously it doesn’t always go this smooth, but you can see how, once she knew she was heard, she immediately calmed down. How do you argue with someone who is agreeing with you? She didn’t get more candy, but she knew she was heard. Don’t we all want someone to listen to us when we are frustrated? Don’t we all get even more upset when someone tries to rationalize why we shouldn’t be upset or that we should “calm down”?

Feeling heard helps people feel understood and keeps people (kids and adults alike) calm. Too often, adults don’t acknowledge kids’ legitimate concerns and, if we do, we often minimize and override them with our own concern. The result: they feel like their stuff doesn’t matter. Sure, they may seem inconsequential to us, but they are real to them, so we must acknowledge that – just like how we want our spouse to acknowledge the dirty dish in the sink, as inconsequential as it really is.

It’s always tough in the heat of the moment, so it is best to be proactive. Have an ongoing concern with your child? Bring it up at a peaceful time. Say, “Hey bud, I’ve noticed that homework has been a bit of a struggle for you”. This is a great opening to get things sorted (future articles will focus solely on creating solutions to these problems using this approach).

Another powerful approach is Positive Attention. Kids respond best when we show genuine interest in them. If you are constantly punishing them you are only increasing the distance between you and your child. Ask about their day and respond with genuine interest. Celebrate their accomplishments and show appreciation for all they do – even if it’s simply opening the door for you. And don’t minimize it with a “but” or a “Why can’t you be like this all the time?”

Finally, learn to use Unconditional Positive Regard. Simply put, we need to be non- judgemental of our kids, especially when they are misbehaving. As parents, we often put a lot of conditions on our kids: “You will only get to spend time with me if you clean your room.” However, we need to love our kids just the way they are, regardless of their behaviour. We may not love their behaviour, but we still love them. We must separate the two or else they will feel they are only loved if they are perfect. Pretty tough standards to live up to. Bottom line: children need to receive lots of smile, hugs, and laughs without any conditions: All things that parents want to give but sometimes lose sight of during the course of their hectic lives.