One of my favorite questions to ask parents in parenting coaching sessions is “How do you think your child felt in that moment?” This often comes after they’ve recounted a challenging interaction or a meltdown or a time when they felt like they couldn’t do anything right. Those things happen to every parent. One happened to me this morning. We can’t always see things from our child’s perspective in the moment - maybe we are tired, frustrated, triggered, or just too worried about something else like getting to work on time - it’s human. None of us get it right every time. That’s okay.
Empathy is the cornerstone of peaceful parenting. Many people believe that empathy is something you have or you don’t but the truth is that it’s a skill. We get better once we know what empathy is and once we practice. The key to being able to have empathy is perspective taking - seeing the other person’s perspective. It’s much easier to see the other person’s perspective when the other person is also an adult. Many of the things that trouble or frustrate adults are familiar to us and we can easily relate. Traffic, waiting forever for a doctor’s appointment, someone not calling us back. Every day challenges make sense.
But with our children, it can be so hard to relate. I don’t care if you give me the green mug or the blue mug. I just want a mug of coffee. So I won’t meltdown if the cup isn’t my preferred color. I know if my friend is talking to another person - it doesn’t mean we aren’t friends anymore. I won’t come home to tell my partner, “Well, I don’t have any friends left and I will have to be alone for the rest of my life.” I know that if another person *looks* at my car, they aren’t trying to steal it. I’m an adult and I have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, maturity, life experience, and discernment. This isn’t to say my brain doesn’t frequently make up stories that aren’t accurate about other people’s behavior (because trust me, it does!) but I don’t go global with things they way children do. Because of that, it can be so hard to see things from their perspective!
I often say a big part of my job is teaching parents how to see the emotions underneath their children’s experiences. That’s the missing piece so many of us don’t understand about empathy. It’s not the experience you have to relate to, it’s the emotion. The child who got the “wrong” cup is feeling disappointed, powerless, maybe even wronged if another child got “their” cup. The child whose bestie was talking to another child was likely feeling left out, ignored, or lonely. The child who saw another child dare to look at one of their possessions, prized or not, could have been feeling worried, scared, or nervous.
The key is expressing empathy with our children is acknowledging their emotions, reflecting, and emphasizing. Just as a good friend would to you. Just as I would to you when we talk about how parenting is the hardest job in the world and why don’t we get any kind of training?!