What is Empathy?

In its most basic form, empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. As empathetic parents, when we see our children in tears, we can imagine ourselves in their position and feel their pain. Watching our children stamp their feet in anger, we can feel their frustration and rage. If we can communicate this kind of intimate emotional understanding to our children, we give credence to their experience and help them learn to soothe themselves. This skill puts us, as river rafters might say, “in the chute.” No matter what rocks or rapids lie ahead in our relationships with our children, we can stay in the flow of the river, guiding them forward on course. Even if the course becomes extremely treacherous (as in adolescence it often does), we can help our children steer past obstacles and risks to find their way.

How is it that empathy can be so powerful? I believe it’s because empathy allows children to see their parents as allies. Imagine, for a moment, if my son John comes in from the yard, looking dejected because the kids next door have refused to play with him. His dad looks up from his phone just long enough to say, “Not again! Look, John, you’re a big kid now, not a baby. Don’t get upset every time somebody gives you the cold shoulder. Just forget about it. Call one of your buddies from school. Read a book. Watch a little TV.”

Because children usually believe their parents’ assessments, chances are John’s thinking: “Dad’s right. I’m acting like a baby. That’s why the guys next door don’t want to play with me. I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why can’t I just forget it like Dad says? I’m such a wimp. Nobody wants to be my friend.” Now imagine how John might feel if his father responds differently when he comes in. What if his dad puts down his mobile device, looks at his son, and says: “You look kind of sad, John. Tell me what’s going on.” And if dad listens—really listens with an open heart—perhaps John will come up with a different assessment of himself. The conversation might continue like this:

  • John: “The guys won’t let me play soccer with them.” Dad: “I’ll bet that hurt your feelings.” John: “Yeah it did. It made me mad, too.” Dad: “I can see that.” John: “There’s no reason why I can’t kick the ball with them.” Dad: “Did you talk to them about it?” John: “Nah, I don’t want to.” Dad: “What do you want to do?” John: “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just forget it.” Dad: “You think that’s a better idea?” John: “Yeah, ‘cuz they’ll probably change their minds tomorrow.”

The difference, of course, is empathy. In both scenarios, Dad is concerned about his son’s feelings. Perhaps he’s been worried for a long time that John is “oversensitive” to his playmates’ rejections; he wants his son to get tougher. In the first scenario, however, Dad makes the common mistake of letting his own goals for John get in the way. Instead of empathizing, he criticizes, gives a mini-lecture, offers unsolicited advice.

As a result, his well-intended efforts backfire. John walks away feeling more hurt, further misunderstood, and more like a wimp than ever. By contrast, Dad in the second scenario takes time to listen to his son, makes it clear that he understands John’s experience. This helps John feel more comfortable, more sure of himself. In the end John comes up with the same solutions his father might have offered (find another playmate, go read a book, etc.). But the boy owns the solutions and walks away tougher, with his self-respect intact.

That’s how empathy works. When we seek to understand our children’s experience, they feel supported. They know we’re on their side. When we refrain from criticizing them, discounting their feelings, or trying to distract them from their goals—they let us into their world. They tell us how they feel. They offer their opinions. Their motivations become less mysterious, which in turn leads to further understanding. Our children begin to trust us. Then, when conflicts crop up, we’ve got some common ground for solving problems together. Our kids may even risk brainstorming solutions with us. Indeed, the day may come when they are willing to actually hear our suggestions!





This post is adapted from John Gottman PhD Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child Simon & Schuster.




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