When Empathy Doesn’t Work

Empathy can have a powerfully calming effect, particularly in the early years with children. I imagine that’s because our babies and toddlers are limited in their ability to communicate thoughts and emotions, so they’re not accustomed to feeling understood. When that happens… Whoa! What a wonderful surprise! They not only feel heard and understood, but also have the reassurance from one of the extremely important adults in their lives that it’s perfectly okay for them to feel what they’re feeling. It’s no wonder empathy can make children feel instantly better.

Yet, for all the inspiring stories I hear from parents and professionals about the miraculous power of empathy, I also hear concerns about empathy not working. Here are the most common reasons empathy doesn’t work:

It’s not supposed to.

Empathy can work like magic, but like all magic, it doesn’t work if we try to make it work. In fact, it will often only serve to aggravate the situation when we try to use empathy as a technique for getting kids to stop crying. For example, we might say, “You are so upset about such-and-such,” while our not-so-subtle subtext is stop crying, I’m understanding you already! I’m acknowledging your darn feelings, so enough!  Or, perhaps, we rush in to hug our angry child to make it better. That isn’t empathy; it is impatience. Never doubt that children know the difference.

Empathy isn’t a tacticIt is a way of connecting that must be pure and genuine. It is the opposite of calming tantrums, soothing sadness, squelching feelings. It is all about accepting, allowing, even welcoming feelings to be expressed, however strong they are and long they last.

It’s too big a leap.

To empathize authentically we must understand our child’s point of view, but often we don’t, at least not in the moment. At those times, when we simply acknowledge what we see, “It upset you when Joey touched your shoulder,” it can help steer us towards understanding and empathy. We might realize, “Oh, that’s right, it’s almost naptime, and she gets very sensitive to touch when she’s tired.”

So rather than attempting to empathize, I prefer infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice to acknowledge. For me, acknowledge feels cleaner and more accurate.

Also, when our goal is to empathize, we’re more inclined (especially with preverbal children) to veer intoprojecting — taking the child’s feelings to the next level. For example, we might say to our only slightly startled toddler, “That dog barking scared you!” Instead of, “That surprised you, didn’t it?”

Our thoughts and feelings matter because they almost always set the tone for our children (evident when you see children fall and then immediately check with the parent to “see” how they should feel). So, when our well-intentioned attempts to empathize misfire, we can actually end up intensifying our children’s emotional responses and making them feel less competent. It’s safer to acknowledge, “You tripped on the rug and fell. I saw.” And then wait to see how the child feels about it before empathizing, “Ouch, that hurt.”

It opens the floodgates.

A parent shared, “Empathy doesn’t work with my child… When I try acknowledging her feelings she cries even harder…and it doesn’t seem to stop. How long should I let her cry?”

This, actually, is empathy working. Beautifully.

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