Empathy may be the single most powerful tool that all parents have, and it’s always available. Empathy enables others else feel understood, and can diffuse unpleasant situations and power struggles. Moreover, the ability to pass empathy along to your children will give them the essential tool they need to better connect and thrive in all relationships. In both What Great Parents Do and The Danish Way of Parenting, empathy is not only a focal point, but the authors demonstrate how it should be a core value for all parents. Below you’ll find tips from both books on how to isolate and teach empathy.
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What Great Parents Do
TRY THIS: The next time you are presented with a parenting challenge of any kind, start with empathy and focus on feelings. It really works (with adults, too).
For instance, your child is getting upset because he has to finish his chores before he can go to a friend’s house. Instead of responding by reminding him of why this is so (that is, instead of reasoning with him), begin your response by reflecting his feelings with sincere empathy. We all know what it’s like not to have things go our way.
“I know you’re upset about having to wait to go to Tim’s house. I can see why you would feel frustrated (acknowledge feelings). I don’t like it either when I have to wait to do something I’m looking forward to (validate feelings).”
The Danish Way of Parenting
Tips for Empathy
1. Understand your own empathic style
Some questions to ask and discuss are:
- What does empathy mean for me?
- What does empathy mean for my partner?
- Where do we agree and disagree?
- What are our values to the core?
- How judgmental am I of myself and others? How judgmental is my partner of others?
- How does our language style reflect this?
- How can I change my language style to reflect a more empathic style with less judgment? Remember, this isn’t easy, but with practice you will get better. Try listening to yourself first to see how much you talk about others, and then think of al- ternate ways to express yourself that involve more empathy. Remember, your children are mirror- ing you. Help your partner do the same.
2. Understand others. Practice understanding others instead of shaming them. You will be amazed how often you are judging others and what a difference it makes to find a reason to defend them by putting yourself in their shoes. This is really putting empathy into practice.
3. Notice and attempt to identify emotionsHelp your child see others’ emotions as well as experiencing his own without imposing your judgment. “Sally was angry? Why was she angry? What happened? What do you think about what happened?” Not “She shouldn’t have been angry and done that.”
4. Read, read, read
Studies show that reading to children markedly in- creases their empathy levels. And not just reading nice books, but reading books that encompass all emotions, including negative and uncomfortable ones. Dealing with reality, even at the level kids can handle, is honest and authentic and is proven to significantly improve empathy.
5. Improve meaningful relationships
Try using empathy to patch up some of your own relationships. Having fractured relationships has been proven to cause physical and psychological damage. Empathy and forgiveness activate the same region of the brain, which means the more you hone your empathy skills, the easier it is to forgive and be forgiven. Meaningful friend and family relationships are the most important factors determining true happiness, well above having a lot of money.
6. Be vulnerable
Try to be a better listener and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. It’s the most connecting thing we can do. Listen, be curious, mirror, and use metaphors to pro- vide caring responses.