The Empathy Tool can be a very helpful tool for parents because it allows us to draw from our own childhood experiences to relate to what our kids are going through. But it also allows us to just simply be their shoulder to cry on. We don’t have to worry about fixing any problem. And we don’t have to think of any heroic action to do or wise words to say to make our kids feel better. We just simply listen and show that we understand. Not in a “I’ve been there…done that…don’t worry about it” kind of way. Not in a one-upping our kids “Well, wait ’til hear MY story and what I went through” kind of way. But more in a sincere “I can relate to what you’re going through and I’m here to offer comfort and understanding with no strings attached. No parenting agenda. No lesson or lecture” kind of way. In fact, we don’t even have to share our own story with them, but we can use our own similar experience to draw more empathy from our hearts to theirs. When empathy comes first, our kids are more open to what we have to share and any advice we have to give. But many times, all kids need from us is the empathy.
The Empathy Tool can easily be applied for any real-life moment kids face at any age. Really, all you have to remember is 2 words: “I understand.” By starting with empathy, you can ease a situation that could quickly escalate.
- TODDLER EXAMPLE: When your toddler throws a big, gigantic fit because you took a toy away that they pitched across the room…you can simply hug them and say: “I understand.” And that’s it! You could add: “It’s hard to get a toy taken away that you enjoy playing with.” This last part would be more for your benefit than theirs because they absolutely cannot comprehend anything you are saying when they are in a fit rage. And then you can stay and hug them as long as they need you to (or as long as you are able to—obviously, if you’re angry and feeling like you need space from the screaming, it’s OK to walk away and give them the space they need to be as upset as they need to be—as long as they are in a safe place.) As soon as they are calm down, thank them for calming down and remind them that throwing toys is unsafe and unkind and that from now on, all toys that are thrown will be taken away until the next day. Then, immediately move to connect with them in a positive way. Give them a hug, and ask if they would like to read a book or play a game with you so they can move on to playing something else together. You have become their comforter. You stayed calm. You didn’t lose your cool. But you also didn’t give them the toy back to get them to be quiet either. You stayed confident. And you showed empathy to their feelings.
- GRADE SCHOOL EXAMPLE: Your 3rd grader complains about having homework every day. You can hug them and say: “I understand. I remember not wanting to do my homework when I was your age. Do you need me to just listen or would you like to brainstorm together some ideas for how to make homework better?” First you showed empathy. Then you invited cooperation and problem-solving as a team. And now it’s their choice. Hopefully, they take you up on learning the skill of taking a responsibility—something they have to do whether they like it or not—and use their God-given brain to creatively make it better. If not, then they just needed a minute to voice their complaint to someone who understands. By they way, here are a few ideas for how they can make homework better, but let them come up with their own ideas first before you chime in. I’ve learned that kids’ ideas are often better than our own!
- having a snack while working
- listening to music (as long as it’s not too distracting for your child)
- taking 10 minute breaks in between assignments
- changing the time—instead of doing it right when they walk in the door, they can have some play time outside first
- changing the location—instead of at the kitchen table, you can try the dining room table or a little comfy spot in their room where it’s more quiet or even outside
- creating their own incentive for getting their homework done—“When I’m done with my homework, I can (play some basketball with mom, learn a new magic trick with dad, or have some screen time.”
- TEEN EXAMPLE: “Mom! Everyone else has Fortnite, why can we get it?? We don’t we even have ANY game system??? I swear…we are the only kids in the world whose parents won’t let them have video games!!!” You can say: “I understand. (see how “I understand” is always our opener? Easy, right?) Then, you can move on to: “Do you want to have a discussion about this or do you just want me to listen?” Or you can also simply say: “I understand. I’m listening.” Empathy first. Invitation for a peaceful conversation second. And then let them take it from there. See? You didn’t even have to share the fact that you can relate because you remember every family having an Atari game system when your family didn’t when you were growing up. (And maybe you can share that with them at bedtime when everyone is more calm) But you can draw on that experience to relate to how they feel. Sometimes kids just need to be heard. And sometimes they just need to get thoughts out of their head and voice an opinion or complaint without us really doing anything at all. Just empathizing and listening.
When my oldest has friends over, it can be so hard on my youngest who so desperately wants to play with the “big kids.” But you know how it is…little brother trying to play with your friends isn’t always fun. Now, I will say that my oldest does do a wonderful job of including his little brother whenever he can (after all we are a team), but there are times where he asks for a little space and that’s understandable. But trying to peel my little guy away from those big kids is like trying to peel Silly Putty off of a plush Spiderman blanket—been there…done that. Impossible! But where I used to get angry and lecture, I learned that with The Empathy Tool, it’s simple. I can just empathize to his fit. I don’t have to get angry. I don’t have to yell. I can just stay calm and say: “I understand.” And I really do. I remember being really sad when my own big brother would have friends over and I wasn’t allowed to play with them. So, in saying: “I understand. You just love playing with your big brother” my body calms and empathy kicks in, and I can be there for my son through his sadness.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Ephesians 12:15
Long days and long fits can exhaust us and drain us and take away our ability to show empathy to our children. Sometimes we just can’t understand their big emotions over things that seem so trivial to us. We want them to STOP SCREAMING or GET OVER IT or MOVE ON. We dismiss things as NO BIG DEAL or NOT SOMETHING TO GET SO UPSET ABOUT. But the reality is that if it’s a big deal to them, then it is a big deal. Lord, open our hearts to remember the deep and complicated feelings of a child. Help us to relate to their feelings in a new way so that we can be a source of understanding. Lord, open our ears so we can be there to listen and be a source of comfort to our kids no matter what they are so upset about. We want to laugh with our kids but we want to be able to parents who can cry with them too.