Simply put, empathy is putting oneself “into the shoes of another” such that you understood what they are thinking and feeling. Empathy is being able to take the perspective of the other person momentarily. As a parent, empathy is being able to take the perspective of your child/teenager. And what does empathy communicate to our child/teen? It helps them feel loved because we send the message that we are “in the trenches” with them when we take their perspective.
For example, when a young child can’t put on their own shoes without help, empathy allows the parent to identify that the child is feeling inadequate, disappointed, and frustrated at that moment as the child struggles with their shoes. Or to take another example, when a teenager is upset over not getting invited to a party/social event, empathy would allow the parent to understand that the teen is feeling rejected, hurt, and lonely.
So how is it that reading these two examples makes sense but when similar events happen in our homes with our own children/teens we aren’t able to think of or talk with our children about what they may be feeling? A couple of reasons are worth reflecting upon I think. One is that if the universal goal of parents is for their children to grow up to “be happy,” then acknowledging “negative” feelings in our child/teen like sad, mad, lonely, etc. makes us feel bad about the kind of parenting job we are doing. In other words, we sometimes overlook upset feelings in our children (without realizing that we are doing so) as a way to reassure ourselves as parents that we are doing a fairly decent job of raising them.
A second reason that we as parents may not talk with our children/teens about their upset feelings is that doing so can cause us to remember our own childhood and feelings from that time can get stirred up and made real in the present. For example, to see our child/teen struggle with rejection from peers will stir up memories of similar events from our past.
But now we come to a dilemma. We know that sharing our own struggles from our childhood and teenage years with our child/teen will encourage them. (They will see that we made it through those events long ago and so they will think that they will be able to make it through as well.) But sharing our struggles may be unsettling for us as we remember events from long ago because the feelings attached to those events will be felt again. So how do we overcome the dilemma that we want to encourage our child/teen, but we don’t want to feel unsettling feelings related to the past.
The answer isn’t simple or easy. We actually do have to be willing to risk feeling unsettling emotions and be able to tolerate those emotions for a few minutes while we try to “be there” for our child/teen. Said another way, we have to stretch ourselves emotionally to help our child/teen with their upset emotions. But that’s one definition of love isn’t it…putting others before us. To schedule an appointment call (972) 934-1485
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STEVE W. PATRICK, PSY.D.
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Dallas, TX 75244