If you’ve listened to or read any of the HelloJoey kits, you’re probably familiar with the word “empathy.” At ParentLab, we believe empathy is crucial for strengthening that precious parent-child relationship – but the concept can be a little confusing, and you may wonder:
What is empathy?
How is empathy different than sympathy?
How can I use empathy statements with my child?
Are there any concrete examples of empathy statements?
In HelloJoey’s “Discipline Starts with Empathy” kit, we explore the idea of empathy and how it can help you to understand your child’s behavior. We also offer expert suggestions for taking an empathetic approach to everything from morning routines to meltdowns.
What is empathy?
Simply put, having or showing empathy means that you’re sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings. This includes being able to put yourself in another person's shoes and both feel and understand what they're thinking and feeling.
Empathy is different than sympathy, although they’re often confused. Think of it this way: You feel sympathy from the “outside,” and you feel empathy from the “inside.”
When you feel sympathy, you stand outside a situation and have feelings about someone else’s plight. You feel sorry that they have to go through a struggle or compassion for their pain. For example, if your child loses their favorite stuffed animal, you might feel sorry that they’re sad, but you don’t feel that sadness yourself. In fact, you might be more preoccupied with your own frustration that your child is screaming or that you’re late because you’re looking for the toy.
When you feel empathy, you step inside another person’s experience, trying to look at the situation from their perspective to imagine how they’re feeling. In the lost stuffed animal example, you might remember a treasure you lost and think about how it made you feel. Then, you apply your own experience to get inside your child’s perspective. Maybe your child considered the stuffed animal a friend who kept them from feeling alone – or maybe the toy was a gift that made them feel connected to Grandma. Empathy allows you to understand how your child feels and why they feel that way – and then use that understanding to create a connection.
How to use empathy statements
When you use empathy statements with your child, you let them know you understand how they’re feeling. It also gives you the opportunity to consider what’s really behind your child’s behavior and to respond in a constructive way rather than a reactive way.
In HelloJoey’s “Discipline Starts with Empathy” kit, Dr. Ruth Burtman offers a real-world example of using empathy when you’re trying to leave the park, which is a frustrating experience for many parents. She recommends approaching the situation like this:
Try to understand the world your child is experiencing and imagine what a wonderful time they’re having before you ask them to change course.
Then, tune in to their experience of frustration, sadness, or disappointment at being asked to leave that blissful experience.
Next, truthfully say, “I know you really want to stay because you’re having such a wonderful time, and I understand. It’s hard for you to leave, and I can’t wait to come back with you.”
Dr. Burtman also recommends avoiding the word, “but,” which minimizes your child’s experience. Often, what follows “but” is an effort to make others understand your perspective (“I know you’re sad I missed your game, but I had to work!”), or even worse, “but” can make it sound like you’re dismissing your child’s feelings altogether (“I know you’re having fun playing, but it’s bedtime!”). Empathy is about showing you understand how your child feels – not about justifying the situation or your own feelings.
Examples of Empathy Statements
Using empathy statements with your child is simple. All you need to do is imagine how your child is feeling in any given situation, and then state those feelings out loud to your child. You can do that in many ways, including acknowledging or connecting.
ACKNOWLEDGING: Recognize your child’s feelings with phrases like, “It sounds like,” “I’m noticing,” or “I can see.”
“I can see that you’re frustrated because you can’t get across the monkey bars.”
“It sounds like you’re angry because your teacher blamed you for something you didn’t do.”
“I bet you felt hurt when Sarah didn’t invite you to the party.”
CONNECTING: Let your child know you’ve experienced the same emotions they’re feeling with phrases like “I understand,” or “I’ve felt.”
“I know how that feels to be scared when you’re alone.”
“I would feel angry if someone stole my lunch box, too.”
“I understand how disappointing it is that we can’t eat pizza tonight.”
Approaching your child with empathy doesn’t necessarily change the outcome of a situation; your child probably still will have to do their homework, brush their teeth, or leave the park. Using empathy statements just helps you to acknowledge your child’s feelings about these situations, which can make them feel like they’ve been heard and understood, building that precious connection that makes them feel safe and loved.
Want to learn more about “Discipline Starts with Empathy?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.