Empathic Parenting

Finding the right approach

I was walking my dog in the woods near my house, and a Dad with a few young children were playing by the small creek off the path. One of the children slipped into the shallow water, and though not hurt, her clothes were soaked. She started to wail, and her Dad, with best intentions, attempted to soothe her by telling her she was ok, that she wasn’t hurt, and that she had other clothes in the car. She kept wailing.

Solutions come second

There was nothing wrong with how her Dad approached the situation, however, through the lens of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), he was missing one important component: offering his child some empathy before moving to reassurance and solutions. As I walked by, I said to the still wailing child, “I bet you were really surprised by falling into the creek. Sometimes surprises are fun, and sometimes they are no fun at all! It probably feels awful to have wet clothes too, doesn’t it?” The child looked at me, stopped crying, and nodded her head. I had made an “empathy guess”- connecting with how she feels. Having her attention, I added, “I bet you’ll feel better when you get into some nice dry clothes.” Again, she nodded her head, and turned to her Dad and said, “I want to keep playing now, and change my clothes after.” The second part of an empathy guess is imagining what the person might be needing in the moment, and my guess seemed to hit the mark.

This whole interaction took less than a minute. Connecting with the girl through her feelings, and the need associated with her feelings, quickly improved her view of the situation before going through the steps of problem-solving. In NVC we say empathy before education, and compassion before correction. In other words, offer empathy first, and once you have established a connection, begin to consider strategies and solutions.

Avoiding tantrums

Parents have asked me how to use NVC with their children, and the methods are generally the same as using NVC with adults, except that children are under our direct care for safety and security, and many times we make decisions for them in ways we don’t typically do with other adults. One way this can play out is when children want something, and the parent isn’t willing or able to say “Yes.” Saying “No” will often lead to an argument, which can then escalate into tantrums.

Instead, one option is to name what might be going for the child before any answer to their request. This could sound like, “Yeah, you really want ice cream for dinner, because you love ice cream, is that right? And you really wish our household rules were different so that you could enjoy ice cream for dinner, huh. Maybe you are even really mad and disappointed you can’t have what you want right now, and it feels unfair.”

You don’t have to agree with the child about what they are feeling and what they may want. What is important is to as much as possible honor the feelings and needs that drive the request. It’s easier to hear a “No” when there is some compassion offered along with it. This may sound like overindulging the child, however, I believe it is worth the extra time and effort for children to know that adults recognize that what they want is important to them, whether they get what they want, or not.

Choice matters

In addition to offering empathy, offering a child some agency in making decisions can help to ease tension. For example, your child may need a bath, but they don’t want to take one. Allowing them to choose when the bath happens can ease the way. “You can take your bath now, or take your bath after I read you a book. What is your choice?”

Finally, being clear about requests versus instructions can help minimize conflict. “Can you please put on your shoes so that we can go?” is a request that the child can refuse. “Put on your shoes, please. We are leaving now,” makes it clear to the child that they do not have a choice in this matter. If there is resistance, offering some empathy and giving a bit of choice about the timing may be helpful.

Parenting is complicated and one of the hardest jobs in the world. This is just a brief starting point to shift how you relate to your child, with potential for much easier interactions and potentially happier children and families.

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