Using empathy when our kids are upset can be hard. It’s hard to remain calm when they’ve made a sad choice or when we are exhausted from the demands of parenting.
Empathy and connection are the foundations of parenting. Empathy is your parenting superpower. The more we can relate to our kids, the deeper our connection can be, and the more positives we will see in our relationship. Kids who have their emotional needs met are more likely to take direction and guidance.
When our kids are upset, whether over a broken toy or a broken heart, or anything else, they need us there for support. Think about your own life. When we are having a hard time, it’s nice to have someone there to listen and support us. It’s not so nice to have someone say, “Get over it.”
Being empathetic to upset kids doesn’t make them weaker or reinforce their feelings. It gives them validation that their feelings are real to them. Our support can help them label what they feel and our problem-solving guidance can help them learn to recover from uncomfortable feelings.
Chaos and Calm
When a child is upset, whether because things are not going their way, or they made a sad choice and have to deal with the consequences, their minds are in a state of chaos. Having an adult add to this chaos with anger or distance will not help the child create calm or deal with the situation in a healthy manner. As an adult, we need to help the child find calm instead of adding to the chaos. Using sincere empathy is an effective way to help the child manage his or her emotions, while also helping the adult to stay calm when we may also want to have our own meltdown. Additionally, by staying calm (or taking a needed break, or apologizing when we haven’t been calm), we modeling an effective method for dealing with emotions.
Responding with empathy is so hard sometimes and it’s not possible to do this with every single moment. We can’t be perfect parents and don’t typically get things just right every time. So, do your best when you can. If you lose your cool and don’t respond with empathy, apologize for how you responded and make amends. Take note of what you can do differently next time.
Emotional Duct Tape
We don’t like when our kids are hurt, sad or experience discomfort. So, what do we do? We do a quick fix of emotional clean up. We make them feel better. And rightfully so, because we hurt when they hurt. But putting duct tape on emotions doesn’t really help. Kids need to experience these negative feelings sometimes. They will a lot when they get older and we aren’t there with the duct tape.
When our home was destroyed and we lost everything in the Carr Fire in 2018, our kids had many instances of sadness. Many kids experience the loss of a pet or family member. It’s hard to see our kids sad. I remember one specific time our daughter saw the same Jessie from Toy Story doll she had lost in the fire. Watching the sadness overcome her face and her trying to fight back tears absolutely broke my heart all over again. I wanted to buy her the new doll and make her happy again. But she didn’t want a new one, she wanted her old one.
In instances like this, the sadness seems like so much. I wanted to make our kids feel better instantly, but there really was no way to do it. This is true even for adults. We don’t need to tell our kids to “get over” their sadness, because they need to learn how to manage these uncomfortable feelings. Learning how to overcome uncomfortable feelings builds resilience.
These empathetic statements will work when our kids are sad, hurt, or upset. They are quick and easy and can be very effective in helping us connect. Remember to come across as truly caring and not sarcastic.
- Tell me what’s going on.
- I am here to be with you.
- This doesn’t feel fair, does it?
- It’s hard when things don’t go our way.
- Let’s figure out how to feel better.
- I can see you are upset.
- That really hurt, didn’t it?
- It’s OK to feel sad when things are hard.
Learning to Feel Better
Once we provide empathy and understanding with an upset child, we can help them learn to problem solve and learn to overcome their uncomfortable feelings. How this looks will all depend on the situation.
- Problem Solving to fix the problem: A kid who is upset about a broken toy may be asked how he can fix it. Asking kids questions will stimulate their thinking. Allowing them to try out (safe) ideas lets them see how the process works. Kids need to see they are capable of solving problems.
- Problem Solving to feel better: Sometimes problems don’t have a solution. Sometimes the problem-solving step of this is helping our kids manage their feelings and feel better. Kids can learn to journal or draw their feelings or go outside for a break to calm down. In a truly heated moment, we can use spatial recognition to calm down (Name 5 blue things you see, then 5 circles). Taking slow and controlled breaths can help with anger and sadness. Once the big emotional reactions have calmed, we can talk about how feelings are temporary and how we can be proactive when we feel an emotional reaction coming.
By Emily Scott, PhD
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