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There is No 'But' in Empathy

If you are reading this I think I can safely assume we would be on the same page if I start from the position that children (all of us, really) manage our emotions better and learn better in a relationship of safety, connection and trust than fear and defensiveness.

Good so far?

Empathy is our ability to communicate our connection with another person in such a way that they feel we share, to some degree, their experience and their emotional response to that experience; that we are comfortable in their presence when they are fully in their feelings. Rather than, ’I want to help you stop feeling this way because I know it hurts’ or “I know just how you feel”, Empathy says, “I understand you are feeling this and I am willing to stand by you in it’, ‘I am here whenever and however you need me’. Empathy does not seek to minimize emotion but trusts the other to process the full depth and breadth of the feeling in their own time. We can visualize this type of connection pretty easily when we think about how we might comfort a beloved friend grieving a deep loss.

Empathy heals without saying ‘you are broken’.

We heal faster, learn more effectively and process our emotions best when we feel the kind of connection, safety and trust that empathy brings.

This - all of this - is also true with respect to our relationship with our children, especially when they are fully in their big and uncomfortable feelings; the tantrums, the meltdowns, the overtired bouncing off the walls moments, the ‘losing my mind because you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube’ moments.

We love our children more than life and we really try to express that acceptance and empathy when they’re having a hard time - so why doesn’t it seem to work that magic that we expect? It can be exasperating when we are saying all the right things and yet the tantrums are still lasting more than 15 minutes or even seem to escalate when we try to speak gently and reassuringly to our child.

What’s going on?

Let’s go back to my description of empathy. Notice I did not say it was our feeling of connection or understanding another’s emotions. It is in our ability to communicate that connection. It lies in how the other person receives our intent. Whether consoling a bereaved friend or soothing a child in the middle of a meltdown, we can start off on the right path with genuine heartfelt empathy … and then our best intentions get derailed. So what’s the penny on the track? Where does the disconnect happen?

For me, and I suspect for many of us, there are two detours that sideline all the love and respect we have for what the other person/our child is going through, and they both arise from the same place of deep caring! One is the desire to make the hurting stop as soon as possible (both for them and honestly, for me). The second is the impulse to fix/problem solve/teach. We can express this as ‘The Rush’ and ‘The But’.

The Rush is when we spend just a few seconds on identifying and acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings and then immediately try to get them over it! In our desire to help, we deprive the other of the opportunity, the critically important time to process their emotions, to rest in them. Perhaps we mistakenly think they will suffer more the longer they are in that place. The truth is that emotions cannot and will not be denied. Their expression may be delayed or turned inward, but they will be expressed. There are no shortcuts. Empathy segueing into the The Rush might sound something like, “ You are sad because your brother keeps knocking your tower of blocks down. I know, sweet girl, that’s really frustrating. I love seeing how you create really tall buildings with your blocks. Let’s build another one together that’s even bigger than before!" Or it might look like the well meaning but misplaced diversion tactic. ‘I feel you, son. Breaking up is tough and I can see you’re pretty torn up about it. We’ve all been there. Look at everything great you’ve got going on in your life though. Sectionals and you have a really important test next week too. Let’s focus on that and remember we’re here for you”.

The message is I am uncomfortable with you being sad, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed. I can relate because I’ve felt that way, I’m not upset at you - aaaaand I need you to get over it asap. Move on. The child may sense that the empathy is not completely genuine, that what really matters is how everyone around them feels. That how they behave is more important than what is happening inside. They cease to feel safe in expressing their true feelings. They may comply, gulp back the tears, buck up, offer a begrudging apology; but they never resolve the emotional tension and it festers. It reappears in a more dramatic form later, often in response to a seemingly trivial triggering event and/or a most unexpected or inconvenient time (for everyone else).

The desire to maintain the relationship with us as parents is so powerful. It may be enough to cause our child to deny, stifle or sublimate their own healthy natural responses and emotions. The child’s sense of self is dealt a blow and they may experience shame as they learn their feelings must be muffled in order to be acceptable to those they love.

The But is akin to The Rush in that we move from a quick nod at sympathy right to correcting or suggesting how the situation that gave rise to the emotion might have been avoided. Worst case scenario is the ‘I told you so’ lecture, but often it is more subtle. “I’m so sorry you scraped your shin but next time you’ll remember not to run on the slick driveway.” “I see you are angry your sister took your expensive art markers without asking. You wanted to use them but that was mean of you to just grab them out of her hand and scribble on her picture.” The first few words are great and we really do get it. We do feel for them. The lesson is important, too. Of course we want to teach respect and help them learn to regulate their emotions. The derailing comes in because we forget that in order to be effective in conveying the lesson, the ground must be ready for sowing the seeds of our wisdom. If our child is in a heightened emotional state, it is as if the soil is being stirred up by a violent wind. Any lesson we try to impart will be lost in the storm of strong feelings. If it becomes our routine response, the child comes to expect the ‘but’ and tunes out, becomes defended. The soil is hardened and the seed bounces off.

It takes time to process emotions, even for adults! We have to be patient. It’s a little like that person we all know (and we’ve all done this a time or two) who only listens to enough of what we’re saying to get the gist and then they’re not really listening so much as thinking about what they’re going to say in response. What the child receives is that we are not sincere in relating to their feelings but jumping ahead to what we really wanted to say all along. We need to respect them enough to allow them the time to actually feel the support we’re offering. Examining and learning from emotions takes a little objectivity. That view from above is not available when emotions are strong. The teachable moment may be a few minutes later or days later. We must trust that the best time to offer the support that sounds like advice or correction is when our connection is strong and the parts of their brain controlling reason are not sidelined by emotion.

It’s hard to offer empathy without the lesson, especially when a sibling has been hurt in the interaction. We can and should show support for the injured/wronged sibling and ensure their safety first. This is separate from helping the emotionally overwrought child learn to do better. We have to earn their trust by showing that our empathy can be sustained through the storm. It may feel at first as if we are letting the child get away with something. As with many aspects of respectful parents, it is the long term goals of emotional regulation, and honest open relationships that we are focusing on. That may sound something like, “I see you are angry your sister took your special art markers without asking. You wanted to use them when you saw your sister drawing with them, you might have felt angry. I get upset when people use my things without asking too. It’s hard to be patient when we are angry even with people we love. She looks pretty upset too.”

No immediate demand for apology. No but. If the child is calm and without any implication of coercion, it is sometimes helpful to ask if they can think of something that would make the injured sibling feel a little better.

When we revisit the incident later, not only are we calmer ourselves and the likelihood of our message being received increased, we also have an opportunity to shift from seeing the child’s behavior from the perspective of what they did wrong to how they might more appropriately respond in the future. We can show that we see them as desiring to be their best self and maintain loving relationships. We show that we expect them to behave not only by avoiding doing wrong, but by knowing how to do right; from a place of respect, not fear. This is fertile ground.

Communicating empathy in this way is not easy, especially for those of us who did not experience it from our own parents and caregivers. We may be learning emotional regulation right along with our children. It is important not to ‘rush’ or ‘but’ ourselves too!

One way I have learned (ok, am learning) to put this into practice is to think EARS:

Empathize with their experience. “Your markers were being used without your permission. That must have been hard. You got really upset at your sister.”

Acknowledge/Affirm. We are in no way implying that the behavior was okay or to be repeated while acknowledging the feeling itself is only human. ‘It is natural to feel angry when someone takes or misuses our things. We may feel the other person is not treating us with respect.’

Relate. Reinforce your connection as people. ‘I feel that way too sometimes.’

Support. Only when you see the child is ready (calm and open to reconnection) should we offer alternatives, advice or correction.

Empathy is not a strategy or a quick fix to get our children to calm down or change unwanted behavior. It is genuine attunement, trust and sustained respect through the joys, the sorrows and the storms of relationship. Our children will learn it as we find it within ourselves to model, to communicate and exhibit empathy; giving them the space and time to process their emotions in the safety of our secure attachment and unconditional love.

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