“Do you have a feeling that’s visiting today? Can you open your door and invite it to play? Can you ask what it wants, and then check it out? Welcome it and listen to what it’s about?”

~ Lauren Rubenstein, from Visiting Feelings

This quote comes from a book we bought for our daughter — and the rest of us — about feelings. It describes the motivation that’s at the heart of empathy – welcoming emotions (our own and others’). It also speaks to the goal of today’s post: helping you to develop empathy so that the emotions felt in your home can be greeted warmly and valued (even when they’re not our favorite feelings).

In the previous two posts of this family empathy series, I’ve written about the numerous benefits of empathy for children and adults, given examples of empathetic and non-empathetic responses to common relationship conversations, and shared reasons why we often have difficulty being empathetic as parents. Now it’s time to start changing our habits and learn how to cultivate empathy in ourselves and our children.

A caveat

Before I proceed, I want to be clear that I’m going to focus on how we as parents can become more empathetic. I have a few ideas that apply to children, yet there are two primary reasons I’m centering on building empathy in parents.

  1. As I mentioned in Empathy – the “vitamin” for emotionally healthy families, children learn primarily through our example as their parents. It’s much easier and more effective for you to become a more empathetic mom than it is for you to remain less empathetic and merely try to teach empathy skills to your child. We’re the leaders of our families and leaders teach by example.
  2. When we attempt to “teach” children about empathy, I find that we’re vulnerable to moralizing. For instance, when adults say to children, “What’s the magic word?,” it’s a condescending and controlling statement meant to make the child say “please.” If parents want a child to learn how “please” and “thank you” (or certain tones of voice) may help others feel more receptive to attending to one’s request, then their own use of these words and kind speech are more valuable and have fewer negative side-effects. Similarly, saying “How do you think that made your sister feel?” in a harsh tone of voice to your son who just called your daughter “stupid,” is more likely to evoke feelings of shame than it is to develop his empathy.

"Empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of, 'You're not alone.'" ~Brené Brown


Practices to help you become a more empathetic parent

Below are numerous ideas you can use to build your empathy muscle. I’ve divided them up into two categories – developing and utilizing. In the developing empathy list are practices that are focused on skills that are connected to empathy like listening, observing, and understanding. The utilizing empathy list centers on practices that allow you to demonstrate your empathetic abilities.

Developing your empathy

  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes. To get a better feel for what it might be like to have your child’s experience, do what your six- or ten- or fifteen-year old is doing regularly and notice how you feel in each situation. And, no, don’t just play games, text, and hang out! Be in their shoes to remember how it can feel to be the age and stage your child is. For instance, if your daughter spent this week going to a new summer camp (or school), finding her way around a new environment, meeting new people, following instructions, learning a new skill, and figuring out the rules and routines of this new place, then your goal would be to do the same thing. Your version might look like attending the women’s night at the local climbing center, taking a continuing education class at the community college, or starting a new job. An experiment you can do with preschoolers and older is to switch parent/child roles. Give your son 15 minutes to “be mom” and you be him and really do it accurately. If you, for instance make his food and insist that he eat his entire meal, have him prepare you a plate (of his choosing) and then make sure you eat it all.
  • Check in with yourself regularly to see how you’re feeling. Especially if you have trouble getting in touch with your own emotions, tools like the feelings wheel can be useful. You can also simply notice physical sensations (tight stomach, closed throat, buzzing energy, shallow breathing, etc.) without putting a name on your emotions if that seems easier. The goals here are to strengthen your ability to identify your own emotional state and build a greater emotional vocabulary for yourself.
  • Look around and make up stories about how the people you see are feeling. Unless you actually talk to the people to verify what you’re thinking, you won’t know if you’re correct but the goal is primarily to build your observational skills.
  • Create environments that facilitate excellent listening. When someone wants to talk with you, give them your full attention by putting down the smartphone, turning off the radio, and pausing in your own internal chatter. When you aren’t in a mental space to listen attentively, ask the person to wait until you can hear them or do what you can to shift your mindset if the conversation is a pressing one.
  • Notice when you’re not listening fully to others. If you catch yourself interrupting, rehearsing your response, or thinking about something else entirely, you can’t empathize because you’re not fully present with the person who is talking. Any time you notice you’ve stopped listening, simply take a deep breath and refocus your attention on the speaker, maybe even asking them to back up and repeat something if necessary.

Utilizing your empathy

  • Verify that you’ve fully understood the people in your life. During a conversation take momentary pauses to check in with the person talking and see if you’re getting what they’re saying (with words and body). “So when X happened, you felt really sad and left out, huh?” you might say. Or when your child is loudly proclaiming to her brother that the yo-yo is “Mine!” you could respond with, “It sounds like you’re not wanting to share. Are you feeling upset that he keeps wanting to play with the toy you have or do the exact thing you’re doing?”
  • Role play empathy with your child using their stuffed animals, lego people, or dolls. You can “review” or “preview” real-life situations. For instance, if you’re getting ready to visit grandparents who have different behavioral expectations than the ones you have at home, you might play “visiting granny and grandpa bear’s house.” Make one doll the child, one the mother, and one grandpa bear, then act out a scene or two of the visit, narrating the empathetic parts—“Grandma bear is so excited to see baby bear. Baby bear is so excited that she’s running and jumping around and Grandma bear starts to feel a bit overwhelmed.”
  • Play detective with your child to guess at others’ mood and motivation. Whether you do this by people watching at the grocery store or when you read books together doesn’t matter. The purpose of this activity is to put your and your child’s observational skills into practice.

If you want some other ideas on how to become a more empathetic person, here are some links to check:

If you haven’t read the other posts in the series, I invite you to using the links below. As usual, I’m open to your follow-up questions and examples of real-life successes and struggles with developing your own empathy as a person and parent.

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