Sometimes when I watch my child crumple into a screeching, sobbing mess at my feet, all I hear in my head is, “You have got to be kidding me! I don’t have time for this!” I can’t feel his pain, I can’t understand his mind, and I can’t find empathy for him.
The thing is, though, I know how to be empathetic—as a psychotherapist and parenting educator, I teach others how to do it. Empathy is a parenting cornerstone, it provides the foundation for emotional development in children. Some days, even though I know how to do it, it takes a long time for my own instructions to turn into action. I have stared at my melting-down children and glazed over, momentarily not even caring how they felt.
Being more empathetic is one of my parenting and personal goals this year, so I started digging more deeply into this concept to understand how to put empathy into action.
According to Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative:
"Empathy doesn’t just mean treating others better—it means doing better. Empathy helps us understand and treat one another better, but it’s also a key currency in a world defined by connectivity and change. Gone are the days in which we worked and lived only alongside those who looked the same, spoke the same, and thought the same. How well we do—whether in the classroom, at home, or the boardroom—will depend on how well we forge and navigate relationships. If we can empathize, then we can communicate, collaborate, and lead. We can solve problems—for ourselves and for each other. No matter who we are or what we do."
Empathy is when a person accurately communicates that they see another’s intentions and emotional state. It means watching our child’s frustration and focusing on how life feels in that little child’s body, while putting our own anger and agenda into the background.
Why can being empathetic be so hard?
It is SO hard to understand another’s point of view or distress when we feel exhausted. I remember a sweet childless twenty-year-old woman telling me how incredibly exhausted she was after I had spent a night mostly awake taking care of my baby and toddler. I felt like punching her—and I’m not a violent person!
When financial, work, relationship, or physical stress sets in, we often cannot see past our own challenges.
When we are about to snap, it is very hard to feel empathy for others.
Anyone who has experiences with feeling trapped or abandoned can get quite triggered by a screaming child. I have heard many moms say they go numb and want to walk out the front door. One mom said it’s like getting a puppy and suddenly realizing what you’ve got yourself into, except unlike a puppy, you can’t give the child back.
Some parents might know exactly what their child is feeling, but just don’t want to feel or understand that fear or sadness.
When we have something on our mind, such as a specific task to complete, we can get preoccupied with not getting that task done, and not be able to feel another’s distress.
If a person doesn’t actually know how to tap into the feelings of another, and what to do about those feelings, empathy can be elusive. Affect management means being able to process and allow big feelings to move through us without being afraid of them.
What can parents do to increase their empathy?
I believe the first step to being able to deeply connect with the emotions of another is to be able to shed our own agendas, defenses, exhaustion, and triggers. We need to clear the screen to see another.
The thing a screaming, overwhelmed child needs most is for an adult they feel close with to stop talking, open her arms, and just be there until the screams subside. As one practitioner I know says, we need “to hold the space for another’s distress without trying to fix it.” If there are lots of screams coming out, then likely there are lots of screams built up inside. Those shouts will eventually stop if there is safety and support for them to be released.
I turned to trusted colleagues for their input on how to increase empathy. Ron Lieber shared:
"Often, the ‘losing it’ moments follow directly from moments of intense, utterly unrequited desire — desire that you, the parent, have thwarted. When I see the anger and frustration boiling over, I try to remember the last time I felt that way — about something I desperately wanted to eat or a time I gave in to spending more money than I should have. Then, I imagine myself at 8-years-old, without any user’s manual for my brain or tricks to muffle intense longing. At that point, it's a lot easier to respond with real empathy."
I love this quote. I think it’s a great idea to remember that when we are about to snap or are at the end of our ropes, that our children feel the same way, except they don’t have tools to manage those intense feelings yet.
Andy Smithson had this to say about empathy:
"I've found that acting empathetically when our kids lose it, is as much about what we do before and after the conflict as what we do during the struggle. Anticipate and think about how the child feels when he loses it before it happens, remember what that was like for ourselves, and create a plan so we do not have to rely on our immediate response when we are wrapped up in our own emotions. Evaluation of how empathetic we were after a conflict leads to cycles of greater empathy with each new opportunity. We've all ‘lost it’ before and thus, have the capacity to empathize. We simply struggle to find understanding during an emotional outburst because we are focused on our feelings rather than theirs. So find that understanding before and after the blinders come on and refer to that next time around."
I call my plan that Smithson refers to an “angry plan.” When we set up the steps we will follow when people are melting down around us, we can go into autopilot and follow that plan rather than being hijacked by intense emotions.
This is what I recommend (and do myself) to increase empathy when doing so is hard:
I invite you over to my facebook page, where I continually post free parenting help/ resources and host wonderful conversations with parents. While you are on the page, I would love to hear which part of this article really resonates with you!