Empathy - A Powerful Tool You Can Use to Boost Your Child's Self-Esteem
We all know what empathy is, but did you realize that there are some really easy, simple ways you can incorporate using it in your day-to-day interactions with your child, to powerfully build their self-esteem?
Your child looks to you for approval - and one of the crucial things a child learns is whether or not you, his parents, accept ALL aspects of himself or only some. If, for example, a parent is extremely non-confrontational and believes that anger should never be expressed between loved ones, a child is likely to pick up on this belief and start to suppress his normal, healthy feelings of anger. When this suppression goes too far, psychologists call the effect "splitting" - the child partitions off the portion of his personality that wants to express anger, because it is too risky. He fears he will incur the parent's disapproval and may be rejected if he allows his anger to be expressed freely.
We'll look at anger specifically in more detail in another article, but the same applies to all the important emotions. Children need the freedom to express happiness, fear, anger and sadness, and a key job of the parent is to teach the child appropriate ways to express these emotions.
The most important step in giving your child the freedom, or permission, to express his emotions is to make it clear to him that any emotions he experiences are okay. No emotions are wrong, and it is always okay to express them in appropriate ways.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how you can do this in a very simple, straightforward way is to give a couple of examples.
The family is discussing their day at the dinner table.
Daughter: "Margie and I fell out at school today."
Father: "Gosh! Was that very upsetting?"
Daughter: "No, I'm just really mad at her."
Father: "You felt very angry."
Daughter (in an angry tone of voice): "Yeah! She's just SO stupid and annoying sometimes."
Father: "I can see you still feel annoyed with her. We all get angry with our friends on occasion."
Daughter: Tells the story in more detail, expressing her emotions with her tone of voice and facial expressions.
Father: Listens carefully and gives her feedback to mirror her emotions with body language and "uh-huh" type sounds. Continues to use brief phrases like "I see that made you are mad," to show he understands the emotions she felt/is feeling.
Outcome: The girl is able to fully express her emotions. The father can then gently lead her into talking about forgiveness and similar "solutions", but not at the expense of allowing her to express her anger first.
Why? It is normal to have angry emotions and children should not be taught to suppress them.
It is time to leave the park and go home, and your four-year-old son doesn't want to go. He is about to throw a tantrum in the sandbox.
Son (angrily): "No! Not going home!" (Scowls and starts to kick sand at you)
You (deciding to take the time to handle this calmly rather than trying to rush, you sit down near him): "I can see you feel angry that it's time to stop playing." (You are acknowledging his feelings)
Son: (sits back down in the sand and grabs his truck): "I'm PLAYING!" (Very firmly)
You: "Are you feeling like you want to carry on playing?"
Son: Ignores you and makes playing sounds.
You: "I can tell you're enjoying your game. It would be nice to stay and play, but it's time for us to go home now."
You: "It makes you feel angry that we have to stop playing for today. I understand."
This isn't a magic bullet to suddenly make your child compliant. You still have to get him out of the sandbox and he doesn't want that. But empathy can diffuse a situation and calm a child down (giving you more room to negotiate calmly with him, etc) And in the long term, it helps him grow up much more healthily from an emotional point of view.
This may all sound too simple and obvious but the truth is that many parents don't show empathy for ALL of their child's emotions. Some are empathetic about sadness but not anger, for example. Others are not at all empathetic about sadness, telling their child to "be a big boy," "don't cry," etc.
By giving your child the space to describe his emotions, and demonstrating over and over that you accept him and love him when he is feeling sad, angry or fearful as well as when he is happy, you are practicing real empathy, and giving him a powerful gift of self-esteem.