Parents often ask me, “How can I best support my child or teen?” My response, “Be empathic” Listen to what your kid has to say, try to understand her feelings, and view the situation from her perspective. You don’t have to share your child’s feelings or agree with them. What is important is that you have compassion for your child’s feelings, that you show you care.
Being empathic doesn’t mean accepting inappropriate behaviors, giving in to unreasonable demands, or not pushing your child to undertake challenges. As Kenneth Barish, PHD, an expert on parenting notes, empathy is not indulgence. You can empathize with your child or teen and still impose limits and expectations that your kids needs to feel secure and to thrive.
For many parents empathy comes naturally. These people may have been raised by empathic parents; absent that they may have been particularly sensitive and self-reflective growing up. Others learn the value of tending to feelings through their own therapy. Empathic parents nurture kids who more easily rebound from disappointment and frustration, who accept responsibility for their actions, and who understand and have confidence in their thoughts and feelings. Parents who forge empathetic connections bolster their kid’s confidence and self-esteem.
For those raised by controlling parents – parents who gave commands, demanded strict compliance, who held rigid expectations, who did not listen to their kids – the idea of empathizing with their child can feel foreign. Unknowingly, these parents may end up being dismissive of their child’s experiences and feelings. A lack of parental sensitivity can result in a child who is defiant, who does not feel valued or in control of her choices, and who is filled with self-doubt and despair.
I encourage parents to tune into their kids’ feelings and to get a handle on the emotions that underlie their behavior. If your child or teen comes home from school grumpy and snaps at you, for instance, first try to understand what your child may have experienced that day. With a better understanding of your child’s emotions, you may react differently to her behavior.