Empathy: The Missing Ingredient

Right about now you may be putting some changes in action for 2015, perhaps renewing a gym membership, squaring away your finances, or getting that juicer you’ve been eyeing. If your New Year’s resolutions include a desire to improve communication with your kids, empathy is a good place to start. It takes skill, patience, and a lot of practice.

In my work as a psychologist, I frequently observe a desire among parents to directly transmit their knowledge, insights, opinions and life lessons to their children. Sometimes they bring their kids to therapy because they want me to relay some important and specific piece of information. “I just want her to know that she doesn’t have to act that way to get attention,” or “He’s got a lot more to offer than he thinks.” These messages come from a place of love and protection. Most parents see their children for the unique and intrinsically good people that they are. Unfortunately, what is delivered as a message of love is, ironically, often received as one of criticism.

Realistically, we all know there is no magic bullet to get our children – and especially our teenagers – to listen to us. However, we often bypass an important step on the way to delivering life lessons. That step is empathy. Unlike sympathy, which is the capacity to feel pity or sorrow for another’s misfortune, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, whatever those feelings may be. As a parent – or a therapist for that matter – to empathize is to fully accept and acknowledge a child’s perspective without trying to change it. Bear in mind that acceptance is not agreement, and you may empathize with a person without agreeing with her.

Here’s an example. Frustrated with his homework, your 13-year-old son exclaims that he is an idiot and a failure. You could A) warmly and genuinely disagree with his self-assessment, B) express pity for his struggle, or C) reflect in your own words that he thinks he is an idiot and a failure (I suppose there are other responses, such as berating, but let’s just look at those options that appear positive in nature.). Each is driven by the will to give hope and encouragement to the disappointed child. Parents often choose between A and B, which makes sense because they do not wish to see their children suffer or make bad decisions.

Most therapists will tell you to go for C, and here’s why. Option A is premature and will probably fall on deaf ears. The child knows you are reacting mostly out of a desire to change his feelings, and he suspects that you never really gave his perspective – that he’s an idiot – any honest consideration. Option B is kind, but offers no opportunity for change. It may even risk confirming his bias. Option C, on the other hand, creates an opening by acknowledging what the child is actually feeling, not just what you want him to feel. You affirm that he is in distress, and you demonstrate that you are willing to be present with him and his feelings at that moment. All this can be done without actually agreeing with the sentiment. The present example illustrates a situation in which you might naturally feel sorry for your child, but the same rules apply when you are in outright conflict and feel no sympathy.

Renowned clinical psychologist and researcher, Marsha Linehan, wrote that “change can only occur in the context of acceptance of what is; however, ‘acceptance of what is’ is itself change.” Just as the child must accept the present circumstances, so must the parent accept and validate genuinely what he is experiencing. To challenge someone’s beliefs you must first appreciate them for what they are. When we fail to empathize with children, they lose faith in our motives and dismiss our offers of guidance.

In order for empathy to be real, you have to spend some time with it and go at it full-tilt. When your 13-year-old son exclaims that he is an idiot and a failure because he doesn’t understand his homework, don’t give a half-hearted response. If the first half of a sentence is empathy and the second half is change (e.g., I know you’re feeling frustrated, but…), then most likely you are giving empathy short shrift. Give it a sentence or two. No question, just a statement. “This homework really makes you feel stupid.” Maybe tack on a little more. “You feel like you’ll never get it,” and “You probably think that everybody else understands this homework.”

When there is wisdom to impart, we often take for granted that others – our children especially – are eager to receive it. When delivered without empathy, our insights and life lessons can be received as unsolicited advice masquerading as wisdom. When you find that you have mastered the art of genuine empathy, you may be surprised that your child has mastered the art of genuine listening. It is one of the most important ingredients of effective parent-child communication, and it should be applied generously.

Image Credit: Sean MacEntee

3 thoughts on “Empathy: The Missing Ingredient

  1. Kelly says:

    This article makes me think of many famous quotes – one of my favorites being from Proverbs – the one about ‘Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes……’

    and from George Carlin – ‘Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away…..’

    I thought empathy was a natural attribute in everyone but our culture today seems to discourage it – expectations on how much we should weigh and how much we should earn in order to be a great person, etc. – but it’s not just about communicating empathy, it’s about practicing empathy –

    I allow my children be who they are and they have taught me more than I ever imagined, more than I’ve read in books, and triggered memories of being the same once – their opinions and ideas have not yet been corrupted – they are naturally empathetic – so far anyway.

    My comment is: People should practice empathy in everything they do, and they’ll soon feel how this special power can outweigh almost all else in life!

    Great Post!


    • Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D. says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Kelly! Empathy is a skill I believe we can develop with effort, even if it comes more naturally to some than others. The more we practice it, the more we benefit in all aspects of our lives.


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