Thursday, August 30, 2007

When in Doubt...Empathy

One thing that is clear in doing a lot of parent coaching and counseling with parents is that it is hard to figure out when to respond in what way with your child. Should I empathize? Should I set a limit? Should I offer a choice? Certainly we can find books that would advice any of the three, and dozens more. As parents we can’t be blamed for feeling baffled, especially at the end of a long day (whether at work or at home) when it feels like we'd be lucky to have two brain cells to rub together.

Rather than several approaches to sort through, it can be nice to have a single fall back option. One that can almost always draw on, and one that would very rarely cause more of a problem. Lots of parents find it helpful in these situations to go back to having/showing empathy for the child. Keep in mind that empathy is not an all or nothing proposal. If something has happened that is big, our child flunking a test, hearing that a friend is really peeved at them (and for good reason), it is important in those circumstances to dig deep and come up with some actual heart-felt empathy. But we don’t need to do this for smaller everyday sorts of occurrences. For these run of the mill issues, a simple, “Bummer,” seasoned with bit of empathy can suffice. In other words, the empathy is most helpful when it is commensurate with the context.

Sometimes our gut tells us that it isn't a good time to say anything. Empathy can even come in handy during these times. We can do this just by doing nothing more than noting that we need to come back to the situation. And before we do that'll give us a bit of time to give it some consideration from the child’s point of view. I’ve yet to see a situation where the parent took the time to consider how the situation might look from the child’s viewpoint (through their temperament, preferences, developmental abilities, and areas of challenge) that this hasn’t proven helpful to the parent or to the relationship in the longrun.

The author of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, George Thompson, made the statement that empathy is the most important word in the English language. And this is a guy whose gig is helping to train police officers around the country how to handle the aftermath of burglaries, and the guy who is refusing to step out of the car for the breathalyser. Situations where people aren't known to be their most flexible. I thought when I first read Thompson's book back when I was teaching that he was onto something important. Knowing how whomever we are working with sees the situation, whether an angry driver who is being verbally combative with a police officer or with our 11-year-old whose attitude we’re finding hard to tolerate. After a bit of practice, on our better days, getting there can come relatively easily. On other days…not so easy. I'll have plenty of posts coming up to address how to deal with ourselves on these more difficult days.
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