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Empathic Parenting: Being There for Our Children and for Others

Children are great imitators of others' behavior. When they are surrounded by people who love them and respond to them respectfully and with empathy, they respond this way to others too. Now, what if I am lovingly responsive to my children's needs, but I don't extend this caring manner to others outside my family? I can't help but wonder how this impacts on my children.

I'm not a die-hard Star Trek fan but there is an episode that left a big impression on me: "The Empath." As a child I was mesmerized by this being who could feel and absorb other peoples' pain. I remember her big, emotion-filled, empathic eyes and felt she would be able to curl herself up around me and listen to me, make me feel loved, and draw from me all my childhood pains.

Defining and Describing Empathy

Generally healthy and adjusted people are capable of demonstrating empathy. Empathic individuals I know will stop what they are doing, take off their sunglasses, and sit down so they can fully focus on the person with whom they are communicating. They have the capacity to sense what others are thinking and feeling, and in this way they gain insight into their underlying needs. Furthermore, they are able to verbalize, or mirror back, other people's feelings so that they feel understood. In responding empathically, they are able to keep their own emotional world separate from that of others; they do not "lose" themselves emotionally in others' problems. We gravitate to these individuals because of their ability to relate well interpersonally; we feel understood by them. They are good friends to have around.

The empathic people I know feel enriched when surrounded by those who hold different viewpoints and come from different backgrounds. They value other people's experiences; accept others for who they are; and they cherish diversity. They reach out to others in an attempt to connect. They seek communion. They look for compromise. They seek common ground. They strive to identify with others by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by being flexible, open-minded, and by looking for ways to validate their views. They listen well, listen a lot, and speak a lot less.

Furthermore, these perceptive people seem to have the ability to see themselves through the eyes of others. This enables them to be self-aware (not self-conscious) and therefore cognizant of how their words and actions impact on others. They can even take this a step further so as to view a situation from a "third place" outside themselves and others. This additional perspective aids in minimizing conflicts and misunderstandings. Of course, if they have inadvertently hurt someone's feelings, they are able to proffer an apology free of any defensiveness.

I aspire to be more like these "empaths" in my interactions with others, and especially in my role as a parent.

Empathic Parenting

Empathic parenting involves all of the above. To maintain a close bond with my children, it is essential for me to focus on being lovingly responsive in my interactions with them. I want to relate well with them, sense what they are feeling, help them put their thoughts and feelings into words, and anticipate their reactions as well as their needs. I want to stop, get down to their level, look lovingly in their eyes, and give them my full attention. I need to listen, listen, listen, help them to feel understood, and accept them for the unique individuals they are. I must keep my own emotional world separate from theirs. I have to be flexible and willing to adjust my language, thoughts, and actions, and to admit my mistakes. I need to be able to step back and reflect on the events of the day, acknowledge the ways in which I offered my children unconditional support and love, and consider ways I might be able to maintain connection with greater ease. My children rely on my ability to connect - and to re-connect - with them. They instinctively know that their coping abilities, and even their survival, depend on a strong connection with me.

I am in awe of the great responsibility I have taken on by bringing children into this world. How can I fulfill my children's needs in a way that will set them on a path towards becoming confident, loving, empathic adults?

Well, in all honesty, I'm not sure of the answer to this question, but I'm guessing it has to do with my being a confident, loving, empathic parent! What I do know for certain is that my children are there to help me. My daughter can tell when my mind is elsewhere. To get my attention, she tells me to "Talk to me Mama, talk to me." What she means is, "Mama, slow down. Listen to me. Engage yourself in what I'm saying. Verbally mirror back what I'm telling you so I know you understand me."

My children are my teachers. I learn so much from them about life and living in the present, about love, about myself. They have awakened mighty feelings of unconditional love within me. It is a type of love I once thought I was incapable of giving or receiving. Children are naturally loving and quick to forgive and move on. They learn to put conditions on their love only if they are loved conditionally.

Empathy in Action

Whether my children are excited or joyful, sad or angry, fearful or apprehensive, bored or glum, I want to be in tune with and welcoming of their feelings. This is not always easy for me. I've been raised in a society that labels feelings as either "positive" and "negative." I've been taught to value the so-called positive feelings and reject the so-called negative ones. I see no reason for this dichotomy, so I have decided mentally to put all feelings into one "box" labeled "feelings."

The problem I'm faced with is that I haven't had much experience working with those feelings I was told to reject in myself and in others. I'm consciously thinking about ways I can support my children, no matter what they are feeling. Of course it's not that I would avoid responding to my children with anything they don't want to hear, for fear of arousing certain feelings. There are times I need to draw the line on a particular action or behavior, re-direct my children's focus, turn down a request, make a suggestion, etc. Yes, sometimes I do upset my children with what I have to say. It's how I go about this that matters. Here is a procedure, the "3 E's," for gently and empathically supporting my children, in these scenarios: My child (1) throws a toy (2) wants to visit a friend, but it's too late (3) wants to have another cookie just before dinner is served.

1. Encourage a solution

If possible, without actually coming out and telling my child she can't do these things, I prompt her to come up with an acceptable solution on her own, which tends to be more effective than my coming up with it: "Since you cannot throw your toy, what could we throw? And where could we go to throw it?" "Since it's getting late, can you think of another time that you could see your friend?" "I put the cookies away because dinner will be served in a couple of minutes. If you're very hungry, can you think of something healthier you could snack on before dinner?"

2. Empathize with my child's feelings

If my child gets upset, I accept and validate her feelings of anger, sadness, frustration and let her know I understand how she feels by putting her feelings into words: "I'm guessing you're feeling very [angry, sad, disappointed]. It's frustrating when you can't do what you want to do / have what you want to have."

3. Explain my feelings and reasons

It is important for my child to know why I feel the way I do, and I try to offer her ways to relate to her internal needs: "When you throw heavy toys like that inside the house, I feel afraid that someone might get hurt. You and I need to feel safe in our house." "I feel worried there won't be enough time for you to play with your friend before you need to go to bed. Your body and mind need a good night's sleep." "I feel concerned that you won't be hungry for the dinner we're going to have soon. Your body needs a variety of healthy foods."

Children need guidance given gently and without blame or threats of punishment. Being empathic does not mean that I must always keep my children from experiencing difficult emotions, but it does mean that I will support them in experiencing the wide range of emotions children, and all humans, are meant to feel. It also means that I will be flexible and consider the unique circumstances of each situation as it arises: While I wouldn't let my child throw something that could injure someone, if she is old enough to understand the importance of healthy eating, I would offer my opinion but leave the decision up to her about whether or not to eat that extra cookie.

Empathy "Orbits"

To return to the Star Trek theme, I like to think of each of us as a sun (or star!) around which revolve planets in various orbits that represent everyone we come in contact with. In the orbit closest to us revolve our nuclear family. Beyond that the extended family and/or closest friends circle round us. Beyond them revolve our friends. Farther out are our acquaintances. At the greatest distance orbit strangers. As the orbital paths grow in size, so do the number of people inhabiting them. Of course we would expend much more of our empathic energy in interactions with those closest to us, though there are times we connect with perfect strangers in powerful empathic encounters.

Young babies know only a select few individuals, most often their mother, father and siblings, maybe too a few extended family members. The younger our children are, the more family-focused they will likely be. As people can be self-absorbed as individuals, so can they be "family-absorbed" which, to a certain degree, is healthy. At some point after we have cultivated a secure base for our children, we need to begin to let go, little by little, as our children seek to move out to encounter the world and what it has to offer. We need to be sensitive to their cues, wait till they're ready, and let them go off and explore. Meanwhile, we watch and wait and are ready for them with open arms when they return. We intervene if they are in danger of being seriously hurt, physically or emotionally. As our children start exploring and accompanying us beyond their immediate world, they begin to interact with people outside the family unit - extended family, close friends, acquaintances, and sometimes strangers. Their awareness of how we interact with others also develops.

Even a very young child can pick up on the vibes, positive or negative, that we send out to others. Thus, empathic parenting means more than focusing on the needs of my own immediate family. It requires me to keep the inner world of my family in perspective with the world outside our little nucleus. I see myself as everything to my children, yet as just one star in the galaxy of humanity. My children need to notice me modeling empathy towards others, even strangers; otherwise, I would be offering them a confusing double standard. But perhaps more significant, in acting with empathy towards others, I'm meeting my own needs for community and mutual respect. My children may be at the center of my life, but they are not the center of the universe. We all have our place in this world and no one person is the sun that everyone else revolves around. A piece of the picture is missing when I fail to demonstrate empathy towards others outside my family.

Empathic Living

When I'm fully in touch with my need for authenticity, and in tune with the inter­connected­ness of all things, I naturally wish to extend a certain degree of empathy towards anyone with whom I cross paths. Following are some examples of where I might do this. All of these situations involve giving others the benefit of the doubt:

When another child hurts my child

Even children brought up by gentle loving parents sometimes hit, shove, or bite. Often they do so when they are at the age when they are asserting their drive for independence and don't yet have the verbal skills to properly express themselves, so instead they use their limbs or teeth. When it is my own child who has been hurt, it is easy for me to become angry towards the other child and her parent. At the very moment my anger surfaces, I accept it by saying to myself, "Oh, I notice I'm feeling angry." I take a deep breath, and let it subside, rather than acting on it. I might then notice the feeling(s) underlying my anger; in this case, that I'm feeling fearful for the safety of my child. And then I can turn this into an opportunity to reach out to everyone involved. Maybe the parent of the hurtful child is dealing with some stressful issues at home which are having an impact on the child? Maybe my own child did something to provoke the other child?! I certainly need not take the situation personally. Instead, I can show empathy not only towards my own child, but also towards the other child and her parent.

When my child's behavior is negatively affecting others

It is important to think not only of my child's feelings and needs, but also of how my child's behavior impacts on the feelings and needs of others. For example, when my child is dawdling, causing others to wait, she simply may have to be helped along to speed up the process of getting ready. This very occasionally might entail gently moving her against her wishes. I can use this difficult moment as an opportunity to reconnect with my child by empathizing with her, accepting her negative feelings and helping her express them. Then I can follow up with an age-appropriate explanation of why I had to take action. In doing so, I help her become aware of what other people are experiencing and how her actions might be affecting them.

When my child and I witness a parent apparently mistreating (screaming at or spanking) their child in public

I will briefly talk with my child about the feelings of all four parties: my child, myself, the parent, and the parent's child. This conversation may need to happen there on the spot, or later on, depending on the situation and my child's reaction. I might start by telling my child how I feel: "Oh I'm so sad to see the parent not being gentle with / hurting their child. I also feel scared." This almost always prompts my daughter to tell me how she feels. Otherwise I first ask my child how she feels. Then I reassure my daughter that I would not treat her that way or let others treat her that way. I then mention the other child's feelings: "And that child must be feeling very hurt, sad and scared right now." Or I might ask my daughter how she thinks the child is feeling. Next, I guess at what the other parent is feeling: "The mother must be very tired and frustrated, and she has forgotten how to be gentle with her child." Or I ask my daughter why she thinks the mother is not being gentle. My daughter has come up with some very creative reasons.

I like the idea of going over and talking with the mother (I have more difficulty approaching fathers in situations like this) and offering emotional and tangible support, first asking her if she would like some help (e.g. with getting bags into her cart). If I am not in the position to help, I at least try to say something comforting to the mother, maybe along the lines of how tiring and frustrating parenting can be. I must admit, though, that I'm sometimes too shaken up by witnessing apparent mistreatment of children to actually carry through with this step.

If I'm feeling unsure about talking to the parent, I've found it helpful just to move physically closer to the parent and child so that I'm close enough for them to feel my presence. I take deep breaths and try to think peaceful thoughts. I may or may not look their way. I might try to offer a sympathetic look to the child without the parent noticing. If the child senses that other adults disapprove of the injustice of the abuse, the child might feel empowered knowing that the mistreatment is unacceptable and not something she deserves. On the other hand, I worry that if the parent feels I am siding with the child without showing compassion for her situation, she could end up blaming the child for what she considered an embarrassing "confrontation" (no matter how gently I approached her) and take it out on the child in unfavorable ways in private. If I can find some way to side with the parent, it may soften her a bit and perhaps she would feel understood. Then, maybe, just maybe, she would be more inclined to show a little more understanding to her child.

These types of situations can vary greatly in their intensity and may be extremely upsetting to witness. Sometimes it might be better to leave the scene immediately, especially if my child is with me and the abuse is severe. Of course, my first priority is my own child's well-being; and next, my own. Furthermore, it is possible that no amount of kindness towards an abusive parent will benefit the child. Often it's difficult to gauge whether to confront or to help the parent, or to do some of both; or whether it would be helpful to speak up for the child or not.

When someone says or does something rude to me

This is a great opportunity to model an empathic response for my children. Rather than becoming irate and hurling insults, I quietly move away from the person and turn to my child and whisper, "Wow! I think that person is very unhappy right now. I wonder why? Maybe they've had a bad day at work?" I am helping my child imagine what might be causing their anger, without taking it personally. If necessary, I can always "blow off steam" later on by relating the incident privately to my partner or a friend.

In situations where I do need to stand up for myself

This, too, can be done in a sensitive way. For example, if someone cuts in ahead of me in line and we are in a hurry, I can gently say to them, "I'm sorry, I don't think you saw me standing here when you arrived. Normally I wouldn't say anything, but I'm really pressed for time today, and my children are getting impatient. I would like to return to my place behind the person in front of you. Please excuse me." My children see me handling the situation with strength and diplomacy.

The following two situations may not necessarily involve my children, but could affect them, at least indirectly:

When someone criticizes my parenting

It is important to me to interact with my children in ways that build, rather than erode, our deep connection. However, in my efforts to be the type of parent I want to be, sometimes it feels as though I am swimming against society's current. I'm putting my heart into raising my children so, when others criticize my parenting, it can be very difficult to take. When I assume other people are genuinely interested in the welfare of my child, I tend not to take parenting criticism as personally as I would otherwise. I can gracefully listen, nod and thank them. Maybe I can even find a grain of truth in what they are saying and acknowledge it. I remind myself I don't have to openly disagree with them, and I certainly don't have to use their advice! Furthermore, without communicating it, I can feel for people who disapprove of aspects of my parenting because perhaps deep down they are struggling with a wish that they had parented differently, or that they had been parented in a different way themselves.

When others want to talk about parenting issues

Many parents love sharing advice with each other. In doing so, we meet our mutual needs for belonging, contribution, and support. It is flattering to be asked to help but it is not something to be taken lightly. Effective advice giving is an art. Pam Leo in her book, Connection Parenting, shared a lovely thought: "People don't care how much we know until they know how much we care." Sometimes, I realize in hindsight I was in such a hurry to provide solutions, that I didn't fully consider what the other person was really asking, nor had I obtained enough information - or listened carefully enough - to understand where the person was coming from. Here are some questions I need to ask myself when I'm asked to give advice:

Providing advice sometimes necessitates many questions so that I may succeed in giving advice that truly addresses the person's needs. Contrary to what it may seem, giving advice involves a good deal of listening.

When I am truly living empathically, I am sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, even when my children aren't there to witness my actions. In this way, I meet my own needs for authenticity and ease. My children, like any children, are very perceptive and pick up on false appearances; even if they didn't actually observe an insensitive interaction of mine, they will sense my lingering unease.


Last, but certainly not least, there is one more person I need to consider in this empathy equation: myself. I want to be more aware of my own feelings and underlying needs. I have more to offer others when I've taken care of my own needs first. I can start by meeting my need for self-acceptance: Yes, I am imperfect. I cannot always be empathic towards my family and others. Some days I am tired and impatient, and lack energy to be the kind of parent I want to be. Sometimes I am curt and cross with my children, husband, and others. I am not a perfect parent, nor spouse, nor member of society, and I need not strive to be perfect. I need only do my best at any given moment. If I can go gentler on myself, then I can be gentler with others, and vice versa. Moreover, like the Empath who expended too much energy and nearly died trying to save a member of the Star Trek crew, I cannot go around keenly feeling others' pain. I would go mad doing so. In this I need to find a balance.

My needs for community, mutual respect, and self-respect lead me to cultivate a village mentality that extends out from my own heart, through my home, into my community, and beyond. My children see how empathy can reach beyond our family nucleus. In being empathic towards myself and others, in my own small way I can help create and spread peace and harmony in our world.

© Tamara Parnay. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Article adapted from a 2-part feature in API Journal (Fall 2006 and Winter 2007).

Tamara Parnay is the mother of two of our Earth family's children.