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The Great Parenting Debates

Empathizing is Hard to Do

Yesterday while talking to parents at Echo Horizon school in Culver City, Ca. about Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, I mentioned that I’d found giving my kids empathy difficult --- even though I know empathy helps you take a child’s point of view, which strengthens her feelings of autonomy. I guess if your parents were often empathic to you (mine weren’t,for the same reasons I cite below) it's easier to find those words. And certainly when your child succeeds or is happy, it's not hard to say "That's wonderful!" or flash a big smile.

But when my kids failed, or another kid hurt or bullied them, the emotional turmoil that provoked in me made it hard to empathize. I felt so bad, I wanted to banish their hurt immediately or dismiss their mistake. (“Don’t cry!” “Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter.”) Sometimes I worried that I’d caused the problem – I should have made him study more! I should help him more with social skills!). How can you empathize when you’re undergoing such a maelstrom of emotion? We parents aren’t detached observers.

I think the solution to this difficulty is the same one you give people who ask how they can get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! Acknowledge your own tumult of feeling, but then, if you manage to say once or twice “I understand” or “You must feel sad,” it’ll be easier the third time. Notice how your empathic words soothed your child and that memory will make it even easier to empathize the next time around.
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