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Smart Talk: Six Ways to Speak to Our Kids

This excerpt is from How To Say It to Your Kids by Dr. Paul Coleman.

The first "E" in TENDER stands for Empathizing. Empathy is important when your child is experiencing strong emotions. A child who calmly asks, "What is the capital of Kentucky?" will do fine with a straightforward answer. But if the child wads up his homework into a ball and yells, "I can never remember this stuff! Who cares what the capital of Kentucky is!" a little empathy may go a long way. "I don't blame you for being frustrated," a parent might say. "It's hard when you study your notes but still can't remember everything."

Parents trip up when it comes to showing genuine empathy. It's difficult to empathize when you're upset or angry or reeling from something your child has just said. Sometimes parents confuse empathy with encouragement and say things like, "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll do just fine."

Sympathetic pep talks are encouraging, but they are not empathic. When you make an empathic response, you are not trying at that moment to solve problems or heal wounds. Instead, you are trying to understand your child's pain and talk about it in a way that helps the child realize you truly do understand.

When Annie came home crestfallen because a boy playmate preferred the company of another boy, her mother wanted Annie to feel better. She said, "Your sister will be home soon, and you can play with her." Mom was trying to be encouraging, but to show empathy she might have said, "That must make you feel sad and maybe a little angry, too." Annie would know that her feelings were being heard, not dismissed. That might have been sufficiently soothing, or it might have prompted Annie to talk even more about how she feels ("That happens to me at school sometimes, too"). Then Mom may have realized that her daughter's concerns were worth examining.

How to Say It

  • "You're feeling sad (or mad or nervous or glad) about . . ."
  • "It bothers you that your brother got to go on a class trip and you didn't."
  • "I know you're feeling scared about..."
  • "You wish Grandpa was here with you, don't you?"
  • "You missed the goal, and you're worried you let your team down. Do I have that right?"
  • "It feels good when you finally make friends at a new school."
  • "The way you hung up the phone makes me think you're upset about something."
  • "It's frustrating and sad when you look forward all week to the ball game but then get sick and have to stay home."
  • "You're really excited about the class trip to the aquarium."

A true empathic response is like holding up a mirror to someone. What they hear you say is a reflection of how they feel. Empathic comments are without judgment. They do not contain solutions to a problem, but solutions fall more easily into place if you can empathize because you understand the problem better. When you are showing empathy, your child will likely talk more. It's easier for a child to reveal her concerns when someone can accurately describe her feelings. If your child looks troubled but refuses to talk, asking "Why won't you tell me?" is not empathic and probably won't help. Say instead, "You seem worried (or hurt or angry or sad, etc.) about something. I'd like to talk about it with you, but maybe you'd rather think about it by yourself for a while." That may gently coax your child to respond.

Clues that you are not being empathic (when you think you are):

  • You rush in with answers or solutions.
  • You find yourself debating with your child about how she should be feeling.
  • You are providing reassurances before you've clearly expressed your understanding of your child's concerns.
  • You want to get the conversation over with.
  • You are very angry.

How Not to Say It

  • "I know how you must feel." (The feeling is not described.)
  • "I understand." (Understand what?)
  • "I still love you." (But is that your child's concern right now?)
  • "You'll be fine." (Reassurance is not empathy.)
  • "It's not as big a problem as you're making it." (You're telling your child he is wrong to feel the way he does.)
  • "Life does that to you sometimes. The important thing is to think about something positive." (Your intent is to make her feel better, but this is not empathy.)

The best time to use empathy is:

  • When your child is emotional and not likely to listen to reason (this is also the hardest time)
  • When you're not sure what the real problem is (empathy can draw your child out)
  • If your child is sensitive by nature
  • If you want your child to understand her emotions

Next: Negotiating >>

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