Saturday, July 17, 2010

Empathy redux

Another phenomenal parenting book, How To Talk So Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk has me thinking about EMPATHY ... again.

The books says that kids just want to be understood. Too often we parents dismiss their feelings and try to move them beyond their anger, disappointment, etc. rather than show that we understand and care about how they feel. Hell, this is true for everyone! I think we jump so quickly into fix-it mode that we forget about the importance of stepping into someone else's shoes. Personally, I'm also hesitant to give credence to emotions that I don't agree with. This is a major area that needs improvement for me. Just thinking about how frustrating it feels to be told that I'm 'over-reacting' or that 'I really shouldn't feel that way' is a good reminder to stop and FEEL.

So I tried it the other day with my daughter and it WORKED! Holy shit did it work! Here's how it went: She put on her favourite yellow sundress that is now too short for her and when we asked her to choose something else, she immediately refused. No amount of coaxing or explaining worked. We even tried to give her a choice -- find another dress or put on shorts with the yellow dress. Complete impasse. So I went in with empathy -- "It's sad when you outgrow your favourite dresses and have to say good-bye to them." "This yellow dress is one of your favourites and you love wearing it." Instant waterworks. We cuddled for a bit and then I told her that I felt the same way about putting her baby clothes away. My son even chimed in about a favourite monster shirt that he was sad about outgrowing. After all the tears were dry I left it alone for a few minutes and then asked her what her decision was. She looked at me and said "mommy, I think I'll find another dress to wear". OMG!

On another note, I find it so heart-warming that my daughter's favourite dress is yellow. Back in 1998 I was at an all-time low point, recovering from a broken heart. I decided that Spring to take a sewing course to get out of the apartment and to also learn to use the sewing machine his parents had bought me (I was at least wise enough to keep the $200 gift). Our project was to sew a little girls dress, which brought me to more tears because I felt like all the hopes and dreams for my future had been smashed to bits. But before long I started to enjoy not thinking about my sadness. I had fun sewing (and re-sewing because I absolutely suck at sewing) my cute yellow sun dress. It became a symbol of hope and I tucked it away for a brighter day which eventually came.

Now, back to empathy. The parenting book I read offers some helpful advice on how to start:
1) listen
2) acknowledge (it sounds lame, but throw in a few "I see", "Oh", "mmmmm"s)
3) give the feeling a name (e.g. that sounds frustrating)
4) give them their wishes in fantasy (e.g. you wish you could wear your favourite dress forever and ever)

As an added bonus, I've noticed that when I try to accept my child's feelings they become less annoying and I want less to dismiss them. I'm so excited about this working in my relationships that I find myself practicing all the time. I'm even trying it out with my partner and my mother. Let's hope it continues to work!


  1. so far so good, but I've noticed a few key things to avoid:
    1) the word 'BUT' (e.g. I know you're sad, but we really have to go) BUT totally negates the empathy; better to say "the problem is ..."
    2) using the same words back at them - I get the old 'duh, that's what I just said' response
    3) insincerity - even kids can detect when empathy is just lip service

  2. LOL I tried this the other day, but I think Holden is still too young to truly express WHY he's feeling a certain way. For example, we've been having some going to bed issues. We read a book, sing a song, then I/John leaves. Then Holden melts down. So the other night I asked why he was upset. "I want you to stay". I asked why. "Because..." Because what, I asked. "Because I want you to stay". Lather rinse repeat LOL (anyway, he was just procrastinating, they were crocodile tears, the little bugger).