I was interviewed by Mazlo writer, Suzanne Schlosberg, about how to use empathy in response to some common parenting challenges. Suzanne is a talented and witty writer who draws from her own day-to-day challenges of raising 8-year-old two boys. I love her authenticity and how she writes about raising her boys. Enjoy!
The other day my son Toby, who’s 8, flung himself on the sofa, sobbing and heaving as if Halloween, Hanukkah and his birthday had been abolished, replaced by endless math homework.
The reality was slightly less tragic: He’d missed swim practice.
His dad had to work late, and, well, swim practice just didn’t happen, for the first time in Toby’s 9-month swimming career.
What I felt like saying: “Are you a lunatic? You swim three times a week! Enough with the hysterics. Go sob in your room so I can make dinner in peace. Now!!”
Alas, that’s what my husband more or less did say, at which point Toby’s sobs became death wails.
As Toby hurled himself up the stairs, my husband, still reeling from his stressful day, looked over at me: “What else was I supposed to say?”
I knew there was something else. But in the moment, I couldn’t think of it.
Every time a child has an emotional outburst, we as parents have a choice. “We can either fuel the power struggle by asserting control, or we can avoid it altogether by using empathy,” says Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, Mazlo’s parenting program expert.
Going the empathy route — “Yeah, it’s really disappointing when you have to miss swim practice” — takes patience and practice, especially if you strive to make it your default response.
But the payoff is huge: Your children will feel heard and respected and, in turn, cooperate more readily. Over time, as responding with empathy becomes habit, you’ll enjoy a more peaceful household and forge a closer bond with your children.
Here’s what to say — and what not to say — in those charged, critical moments that set the tone for your parenting.
Critical moment #1: Your child resists a request you just made
Your child has spent hours playing with Legos on the living room floor. Now it’s bedtime, and you’ve asked him to clean up. “No!” he retorts. “Why do I have to do it now? I’ll do it tomorrow.”
What not to say: “Because I said so!”
The empathetic response: “It’s so hard when...”
“Because I said so.” tells a child: I don’t respect your feelings — I’m dismissing you. “It’s just inviting pushback,” says Benaroya.
Once you start down that path, your child will simply ignore whatever else you say. “Be mindful of what comes out of your mouth first,” Benaroya advises. “It’s hard to backpedal out of ‘because I said so.’”
Instead, try: “Yeah, it’s a hassle when you have to clean up your toys.”
Nothing (short of a threat or a bribe) will magically inspire a reluctant child to clean a room, but if you respond with compassion out of the gate, you dramatically increase the odds of getting order restored to your living room.
Responding with empathy doesn’t mean you’re a pushover, Benaroya notes. “You can set a limit while at the same time inviting cooperation. It’s possible to be both kind and firm.”
For example, follow your empathetic statement with a choice: “You’re welcome to put your Legos in your toy bin, or I’ll put them away in a box for a few days, and we can try again when you’re responsible for your own belongings.”
You needn’t launch into a negotiation or lengthy explanation on the virtues of a tidy home, Benaroya says. Simply offer your choice and move on.
Critical moment #2: Your child throws a fit over a disappointment you perceive as minor
A planned restaurant outing falls through, prompting a meltdown: “But you SAID we were going to a restaurant tonight! You said so! You lied! That’s not fair!”
What not to say: “Too bad. Stuff happens” or “Get over it — it’s not the end of the world!”
The empathetic response: “It’s such a bummer” or “It’s so sad when plans fall through.”
“To adults, a change of plans is nothing,” Benaroya says, “but in a child’s mind, it can be a huge disappointment, and acknowledging your child’s frustration is important.”
Your child may not be placated by your display of empathy, but she’ll at least feel heard. “The goal isn’t to stop her from feeling a certain way but to stop an escalation,” Benaroya says.
Try following your empathetic opening statement with a nod to the future: “We’ll go to a restaurant soon, and maybe you can help pick it out. If you got to choose your favorite restaurant, what would it be?”
Says Benaroya: “Sometimes meeting their fantasies can be enough for them to feel understood and help them move through the disappointment with more ease.”
Critical moment #3: Your child is sobbing uncontrollably over a minor injury
Your child skins his knee at the park and wails as though he needs to be carted off in a stretcher.
What not to say: “You’re fine — you’re not even bleeding!” or “You’re OK — just walk it off.”
The empathetic response: “Uh oh, what happened?”
“Many parents believe that if you tell children, ‘You’re fine,’ they’ll accept what you say and move on,” Benaroya says. “But what we’re telling kids is, it’s not OK to feel what you’re feeling.”
When you dismiss children’s pain and emotions, she explains, they’ll escalate those emotions to show you how mad they are for being dismissed.
Worse, you risk long-term damage to your relationship. Says Benaroya: “The problem with telling a child to ‘man up’ is that later on, when something really bad does happen, like when they get beaten up or bullied, they’re not going to share it with you because you’ve told them their feelings aren’t valid.”
Do you want these tips at your fingertips when you need them the most?