Empathy

October 13, 2016

 

Have you (like me), ever responded to someone's moment of angst with any of the following:

 

You should..

You ought..

You didn’t!

It’ll be fine!

Worse things have happened!

I’m sure it isn’t all that bad

or

Don’t worry!

 

It's tempting when our children have difficulties of any kind for us to want to minimise their pain.  We love them and we want them to feel peaceful, happy and to offer good advice in difficult situations.

 

The problem is, we’re not minimising the pain, we’re minimising the problem. And that won’t make it go away.

 

A problem to them feels like a trauma.  

When paramedics come to the scene of a trauma they tell the patient what they should have done, or ought to do next time. They comfort, they attend to the wounds. Everything else is secondary. We may not feel our child’s concern is a trauma, but it is to them. Only last night our seven year old realised he hadn’t brought a piece of homework home. To him, everything else went dim and all he could see was the enormity of this issue. Telling him it didn’t matter wouldn’t have made the issue diminish.

 

When we pacify, advise, lecture, console, solve or even humour or try to distract them, we’re not actually dealing with their trauma. We’re stepping over it in the hope that it will fade away.

 

A lovely mum came to me recently and has given me permission to share this example.  Let’s call her Monica:

 

Monica’s Eight year old son, Josh, gets very angry. He tends not to share his concerns, but stores up experiences until they just get too heavy to carry and then he displays all the habits of a frustrated child. Monica's a lovely patient, kind mum. There's no reason for him not to be able to share his issues with her - or is there?

 

The problem was that her son’s closest friend, Tilly was going to Bobby’s for tea one day. Throughout the playtimes and lunchtimes that day Tilly favoured Bobby.  Josh was upset; I daresay he felt left out and rejected. This came out in a hail of frustration a week later.

 

I asked Monica how she’d responded.  She said that she’d explained to Josh that children can be hurtful, they change who they're playing with and that Tilly would play with him another day and suggested that he played with lots of different people and told him he’s a lovely friend to have.

 

With respect, there are some great points. But it’s not empathy.  It doesn't deal with how Josh is feeling. In fact, it steps right over the feelings and jumps to solutions. His pain is minimised. He may well have kept it to himself for a week as he was aware that he wouldn’t get the empathy he needed. He was distressed and knew how to avoid advice!

 

Empathy is sitting next to them in their muddle, listening to their heart and connecting with their experience. It’s here that we can validate the feelings that are bubbling up in them – even if the experience would have had a different affect on us.

 

Parents don’t mean to overstep the heart’s issue. It’s natural to want to save children from pain. In doing so it’s tempting to minimise, solve and move them away from the negative emotions that are upsetting them. But it’s a short term gain; a human's greatest need in difficult times is for feelings to be validated and to experience empathy. It’s the doorway to solutions, it’s the message that says “You’ve been hurt and I care.” It’s the access point for creative resolving, it’s a superpower. 

 

But what if all this compassion makes them wallow in their pit when a bit of good advice could shunt them on? Well, first of all, good advice closes the case-file, but it doesn’t heal the heart.  Secondly, they will move on to solutions, it’s natural for them to want to. But they won’t feel inclined to go there until they’ve been heard and understood.

 

Empathy will lead to them looking for solutions, but we may need to be patient. It’s not a new, improved way of shunting them on! The point of this exercise is to send the clear message that we get it, we understand, it’s hard for them, we’re a safe place to come, we can be trusted with their hearts. 

 

It’s from this safe place that they will naturally, once heard and understood, explore their options. That's the moment when they might want your advice. Do you have friends whose first instinct is to tell you what to do or minimise your issue instead of listening to how you feel? You soon learn who to share with don’t you?

 

Whether our kids are coming to us because their book is torn, their friend has been unkind, they don’t like their teacher, they hate their piano lessons or they find their sibling annoying… Just empathise:

 

 

“That’s tough.”

“I’m so sorry you’re feeling like that.”

“I’d like to hear about that.”

“That’s very difficult for you.”

 

 

When they’re older:

If they’ve left their homework at school, lent something to someone who won’t return it, don’t want to go to a party, don’t feel like doing a chore. If they want something you can’t permit, are having friendship, money, or other problems…

Just empathise.

 

Perhaps you always do. You’d be unusual. I know that when one of mine is having a paddy, the words “That’s really hard for you darling,” aren't necessarily on the tip of my tongue! Particularly if they’re dragging their feet over a chore! Empathy at all times is totally counterintuitive. But it’s powerful.

 

No matter how trivial or crazy, how breathtakingly inept they may have been or if they’re railing against the world…hold the advice. And if they’re railing against your boundaries, hold the defenses! It’s hard:  We’re wired to say “You should, you ought, you didn’t!, worse things happen at sea, I’m sure it isn’t all that bad, it’ll all turn out for the best. That’s nothing compared to what I’m going through! Don’t worry (coz that always works, right?!)” - And more besides. And lets face it, we’re probably right.  And, the issues are sometimes so small that a quick solve is tooo tempting.

 

You can try skipping the empathy and you can hand out your advice and they may well carry it out. But they will also be registering “Mum/Dad just doesn’t understand how this feels.”

 

Recently my 17 year old had a difficult situation and I didn't press pause, I didn't empathise, I just blurted out some wonderful advice. She thanked me and left the room. She came back a few minutes later and said "I know that what you said was probably true and could have been helpful, but I just wanted you to listen first." Oops. She was right. 

 

Empathy calms down that Amygdala that we talked about in the last blog (Calming The Storms). It enables them to come out of fight or flight mode and for fear to dissipate as they feel safe with you.

 

From this place of safety it is easier for them to move the information out of the clutches of the Amygdala and progress it to the Prefrontal cortex where reason and rationale reign, where they can consider their options and possible outcomes.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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