“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet, listening of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” – Carl Rogers
In my experiences as a school counselor and therapist, empathy has been one of my greatest tools. Although emotional support looks different for everyone, according to Carl Rogers, an American psychologist who founded the humanistic approach to psychology, it is extremely valuable for it to include genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. This is the philosophy that I practice as a school counselor and therapist. Additionally, I strive to follow this as a parent.
As the father of two young girls, I sometimes find myself focusing on coaching, teaching, and telling as opposed to listening, asking, and empathizing. Perhaps it is a parent’s natural tendency to focus on teachable moments as opposed to showing empathy and truly being with their child through his or her experiences. As parents, we may find ourselves saying, “You will get through this,” or “If you do this, you will feel better.” We try to fix the problem because we want to make our children feel better. This ends up having an adverse effect. It closes up our children, invalidates their emotions, and they no longer want to tell us how they are feeling.
Be present through your child’s emotional experiences.
Although empathy is something that happens automatically, it needs to be coupled with listening and communication skills in order to be expressed to others effectively. Empathy alone cannot be taught as it is something that is felt by a human being. However, it is possible to teach our children what empathic listening and communicating look like as well as what it feels like. For example, if your daughter is presenting sad because camp is ending and she will miss her friends, an expression of empathy may include, “It sounds like you had a really great time at camp with your friends this summer and you will really miss them. That must make you feel sad. What are some parts of camp that you will miss the most?” This will show your daughter that you are being present and nonjudgmental and will also teach her what expressions of empathy look like and feel like. She will be likely to talk more about how she is feeling and will have a better understanding of what it means to be empathetic.
Help your child identify what they are feeling.
As you probably know through your own experiences, sometimes you just want to talk about how you are feeling without having someone else try to fix your problem. Children are the same way. If you respond with comments that indicate you are trying to fix what they are going through, they will be less likely to come to you to talk. Just listen and help your child identify what they are feeling. The more aware a child is of what they are feeling, the better they will become at identifying what others are feeling. This will increase their emotional intelligence and ability to express empathy towards others. Expressions of empathy are a tremendous skill that can help your child manage and maintain future relationships as an adult both on a personal and professional level so it is crucial that they learn, understand, and feel them throughout their childhood.