Far beyond anything intellectual our children will ever learn, I value their self-discovery, that knowing and understanding of their own internal landscape. One aspect of self-awareness and self-expression that we’re actively working to foster in our daughter centers on emotions. I want my daughter to be able to know how she feels and have the freedom and courage to share her emotional self with others. Beyond the simple awareness, I want her to understand the roots of her emotions and learn how to allow them without being controlled by them or expressing them in ways that are harmful to herself or others. To me, one of the best ways I can support her full emotional development is to be empathetic with her.

Is it empathy or not?

In Empathy – the essential “vitamin” for emotionally healthy families, the first post in this series, I covered the basics of empathy, including why empathy matters to our families and how empathy supports our children’s development and self-acceptance. The common shorthand for empathy is the idea of walking around in someone else’s skin — being able to see, feel, and understand what her/his experience is and to care about her/him. Before I share ideas about why we have difficulty being empathetic as parents, I want to give a few examples from my own relationships of being empathetic and not being empathetic:

Being empathetic is…

  • A friend expresses sadness that her loved ones live far away and also a self-pitying statement that “no one understands” her melancholy. My response: “It makes sense to me. You’re missing the people you love the most.”
  • My daughter gets sad and angry (cries and yells) that there’s no dessert after tonight’s dinner. My response: “I know you don’t like it and it doesn’t seem fair. I get that you really want ice cream.”
  • My husband expresses worry over the next phase of a project and concern about the best way to proceed. My response: “I hear it’s really important for you to figure out what step to take next and that right now the answer seems elusive. I understand.”

Basically, my responses boil down to “I get you. I understand. How you feel and how life looks to you right now is clear to me.” Also, as my coach, Carrie Contey, says, empathy doesn’t mean using a lot of words, or even any words at all. The bottom line goal with empathy is to fully understand the other person’s experience and to verbally or non-verbally communicate that you’re with them, you’ve understood, and you care.

"One of the fundamental experiences that come with trust is 'I am not alone.'" ~Esther Perel

Not being empathetic is…

  • A close relative complains that we haven’t seen each other recently because I’ve been too busy. Believing this to be only part of the full picture and wanting to “set them straight,” I respond defensively: “Actually, I’ve tried to schedule times to see you twice and both times you’ve said it wasn’t a good time.”
  • My daughter says that she’s not going to her day camp a half-hour before it’s time to leave. Frustrated at her “last minute” declaration and really wanting the time to move my latest work along, I react: “Yes you are going. It’s Tuesday and that’s what’s on our schedule. Go get dressed.”
  • My husband is excited about a vision he has for our yard and tells me about it. Worried about the potential cost and effort involved, I say: “Well, I don’t think rhododendrons would do well there because it’s not wet enough and we just spent a bunch of money on our holiday vacation so it doesn’t seem like a good idea to do such a big project.”

For me, the essence of a non-empathetic response to someone is anything other than “I hear you. I understand.” Additionally, as Dr. Neel Burton notes, “empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others.”

Why we parents aren’t always empathetic with our children

While there may be 1,000 reasons why we moms and dads struggle with empathy, I’m going to list what I consider to be the main challenges.

  • We forget to take off our parenting “fix it” hat. We want to support our children and sometimes have a very difficult time simply being with them in a moment of struggle. We want to jump in and problem-solve, teach, and offer advice – both to get them out of whatever problem evoked their upset and to soothe their emotional pain.
  • We don’t want to feel uncomfortable. We love our children and when they’re experiencing a difficulty, we often feel our own distress. If our daughter is sad and hurt that a close friend shared something private our daughter had told her, we might feel angry at the girl’s disloyalty or anxious about how the revelation might impact our daughter. To calm our own upset and worry, we may automatically explain, rationalize, or minimize our daughter’s experience rather than simply empathize with her.
  • We have difficulty giving what we didn’t receive as children. Since most of us grew up when empathy wasn’t highly valued, the adults in our lives typically weren’t empathetic with us. We were told to “stop crying,” “it’s not so bad,” “you’re being selfish/a baby/snotty/bratty/etc.,” and more. Thus our learned behavior is to do something similar with our own children.
  • We get tripped by our own emotions. If our child is mad at us or crying “because” of something we did, it’s often harder to accept their distress without reacting by defending or justifying ourselves.
  • We don’t get much empathy ourselves. Our bosses, clients, and co-workers want results not excuses, so there’s not much empathy in the workplace. Even our friends and spouses who genuinely care about us may not be skilled at offering empathy. And we don’t usually even give ourselves much or any empathy. So it’s highly likely that we have an underlying sense of not being heard and understood, which can make us less willing or able to hear and understand others.
  • We’re often better talkers than listeners. While there are exceptions, most people are better at telling you their story than in listening to yours. Even though empathy also involves noticing non-verbal communication such as body language, many of us are so distracted that we’re less likely to be carefully observing the people around us.
  • We don’t give empathy enough time. Part of our opportunity as parents is to help our children problem-solve and learn new life skills. So when they come to us with big emotions, being empathetic can seem like inaction, so instead we may immediately pop into teacher/counselor/helper mode.

Bottom line, for a number of reasons, we’re simply not very practiced at being empathetic. But we can change this. In the final post in this series, I share ideas for developing your own empathy muscle.

Also in The empathetic family

This series focuses on the whys and hows of using empathy in our families.

  1. Empathy — the “vitamin” for emotionally healthy families
  2. Empathy at home – Easier said than done
  3. How we can become more empathetic

View the entire series