In your journey to be a good enough parent, you’ve begun to take care not to exasperate your children, and you’re spending more regular time with your children. You’ve gone a long way toward meeting their core emotional need for connection and acceptance. All that’s left now is the last “must do”—validating their feelings.
The Benefits of Empathy
Children regularly go through all kinds of emotions. When parents empathize with them and help them understand (process) their feelings, children experience connection and acceptance. Many parents, however, do not attribute much importance to the feelings of their children. Some parents are emotionally inhibited and regard feelings as being unhealthy; others just focus on doing what is right; still others allow their own agenda and worries to take over. In our Good Enough Parenting model, we believe that not empathizing with our children’s feelings and therefore not connecting with them at an emotional level leads to many of the exasperation interactions discussed in Chapters Three and Four.
Empathy is a heart-felt response to another’s emotions. We get there by putting ourselves into the other person’s shoes, then we respond in a way that conveys understanding accurately and in a caring and respectful manner. Empathy can be compared to watching a movie about another person, immersing ourselves in his issues, and then reflecting back to that person his feelings and thoughts, with a sense of genuineness and care. So how is this related to parenting?
Think about it. Suppose you have a heated argument with your spouse just before leaving the house for work. Flustered, you decide to stop for coffee. What a surprise, while waiting in line, you meet a good friend. You are so happy to have someone to whom you can pour out your feelings, so you just let it all out. How would you feel if, as soon as you finished your story, your friend replied by giving you a lecture about being a better wife or husband? Or maybe started giving you advice? Or told you to stop worrying because you look nicer when you are smiling? Or minimized your feelings, or tried to psychoanalyze you? We bet you would not seek that friend out for a while, at least not when you had a problem! Why? You just wanted someone to listen and show empathy. But what about with our children—what kind of listeners are we? Why do we struggle to show empathy to our children?
One unfortunate consequence of today’s lifestyle is that parents have less time to spend with their children than in days past. Moreover when parents reach home after a full day at work and when they should be focusing fully on their role as moms and dads, they often have very little energy left to give to their children. As a result, the quality of relationships between parents and children is on the decline. (That is why we are such big proponents of concepts like downsizing, living on one income, and flexi-time work arrangements for mothers and fathers.)
On top of the economic pressure adults are feeling, children are facing increasing pressure to excel at school, which means more frequent exams and tighter deadlines. Parents and children seem to be rushing from day to day in the pursuit of increasing academic intelligence, at the expense of other important areas of their lives such as emotional intelligence. With less free time, parenting can become very productivity-minded, which leaves less time for play and drawing out feelings. Children with poor emotional intelligence become adults with poor emotional intelligence, unable to bond with the important people in their lives, resulting in shallow relationships and little intimacy. Marriages suffer, since they are less equipped to meet their spouse’s needs. It is no surprise that divorce rates are rising sharply across the globe. Unhealthy marriages across the board take their toll on parenting, and dysfunctional behavior is perpetuated through successive generation. Gottman says:
In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.1
Gottman proved this by conducting research on families for over a decade. He monitored how parents dealt with their children’s emotions, which included the parent’s reaction to the children’s emotional experiences, such as when their kids were angry, sad and fearful. He also measured the parent’s awareness of the role emotions play in their own lives. Gottman’s team followed these children from age four to adolescence. Their study found that when parents practiced empathizing with their children and validating their children’s feelings, as well as helping their children to be emotionally intelligent, the children fared well in the following areas:
• Emotional well-being – Children with emotional intelligence could regulate their own emotions, which means that they were better at soothing themselves when they got upset. They could also calm themselves down better and faster.
• Physical health – As a result of being able to handle their emotions better, children with emotional intelligence had fewer illnesses.
• Social competence – Children with emotional intelligence could relate to other people better, even in tough situations when they got teased. They also had better friendships with other children.
• Academic performance – Children with emotional intelligence were better at focusing attention and performed better academically.2
This research highlights the importance of parents not ignoring their children’s feelings, but valuing them by showing empathy and processing their emotions. But validating children’s emotions and empathizing with them does not come naturally for many parents. What comes naturally for parents is to respond with a coping style; i.e., to surrender, to avoid, to overcompensate, which inevitably leads to one of the exasperation interactions.
Zero Degrees of Empathy
Simon Baron-Cohen has been studying empathy for thirty years, and recently published his findings with the eye-catching title, Zero Degrees of Empathy.3 He believes that empathy varies in degrees; it is not an either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t quality. In a normal population, people’s different levels of inborn empathy will be reflected in a bell-shaped curve. Most people will be in the middle, having some empathy, but a small percentage will be in both extremes; one with a lot of empathy and the other with little empathy, or, worse still, what Cohen refers to as “zero degrees of empathy”.
Why do parents need to be concerned about this? Because childhood experiences, including reactions to parenting, affect children’s empathy levels. We agree with Cohen’s belief that “empathy erosion” results when children’s needs are not met over time. Cohen warns, “When empathy is switched off, people operate in the ‘I’ mode; their primary concern is about themselves,” and they treat others as objects.4 In the case of children whose empathy is being eroded over time, as they get older, they will develop a desire to protect themselves, then a desire for revenge, and later, blind hatred. Scary! Eventually, those with zero degrees of empathy cannot experience remorse or guilt because they do not or cannot understand what the other person is feeling. They lack awareness of how they come across to others, how they interact with others, and how to anticipate others’ feelings or reactions. In addition, these individuals “believe 100% in the rightness of their own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold to their beliefs as wrong, or stupid.”5
If you watch crime shows, you may have heard the terms “borderline personality disorder”, “psychopath”, or “malignant Narcissist” bandied about—these are the guys who cannot feel for others and only care about themselves. Guess what? They have “zero degrees of empathy”. Cohen’s research found that a huge percentage of adults with extreme personality disorders like those above have traumatic childhoods or experienced emotional neglect, indifference, deprivation and rejection.6 Conversely, when children are connected to their parents and confident that their parents will treat their feelings with respect, rather than developing “zero degrees of empathy”, their own empathy quotient increases.
Parents refusal or lack of ability to process their children’s feelings is often related to parents’ lack of awareness of their own emotions. Children may not always openly show their feelings. Sometimes, they give out only subtle clues, but parents who are trained or intuitive will be able to read between the lines.
Children experience emotions such as anger, happiness, sadness, joy, shame, pride, humiliation, acceptance, guilt, confidence, abandonment, love, embarrassment, excitement, annoyance, and contentment, to name a few, with regularity. The more parents pick up on these feelings and learn how to process them with their child, the better the core emotional need for connection and acceptance will be met. However, parents react differently to the emotions experienced by their child. Many parents do not find talking about feelings or emotions attractive—they prefer to avoid such talk. Some parents get triggered by certain emotions and respond in an unhealthy way, such as by putting the child down, being punitive, pouting, or blaming themselves silently. Parents who are able to gain awareness about how they respond to the feelings of their child will be off to a good start in trying to meet their child’s core emotional need for connection and acceptance. Please go to Appendix 2 for an important exercise.
The three prominent parenting experts who offer the most valuable insights in the area of processing children’s feelings are Ginott, Gottman, and the team of Faber and Mazlish.7 The steps they advocate apply to both older and younger children. In summary these are:
• Be aware that the child is experiencing emotions, and have an initial idea of which emotion(s) he might be feeling. This involves interpreting the verbal expressions, tone, and non-verbal expressions of the child.
• See the child’s feelings as an opportunity to connect with him at an emotional level. This will strengthen the bond between the parent and child. Parents should not rush into giving solutions. Both the tone of voice and body language is crucial in communicating this message.
• Draw the child out verbally to be able to express these emotions or feelings, and to label these feelings or emotions correctly. This process will train the child (and in the beginning, the parent) to process his feelings, and thereafter cope in a healthy way.
• Validate the emotion(s), then show empathy and compassion to the child. Again parents should not rush into giving solutions.
• At a suitable time, collaborate with the child and help resolve the issue that triggered the child.
The manner in which the above principles are practiced changes with the age of the children. We echo and support the points below taken from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s bestseller, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk. Read the first chapter of their book to get the picture fully.8
I (John) tended to lose my temper when the kids were disrespectful, which would sometimes happen if they were angry. So when they were young, and said something like, “Janice was mean to me and I felt like punching her in the nose”, or “I hate my teacher!” my first reaction was, “You shouldn’t be angry”, or “Don’t be disrespectful!” Instead of empathizing with them first, I would immediately side with the other person. Not surprisingly, that upset them even more. When Sonia was about six years old, a couple with older kids told us that they had regretted telling their daughter, “You’re not afraid, you’re brave”. That statement made me stop and think before dismissing my children’s emotions. In the next few years, I read the Faber and Mazlish book, and I saw what I been doing wrong. I made a point to listen to and validate their feelings. Once I learned how to process the kids’ emotions, I was able to say things like, “Sounds like you’re really angry” and then we could have a conversation from there.
Accepting Feelings vs. Accepting Behavior
Ginnot and Gottman’s writings encourage parents to accept children’s feelings, but not necessarily their behavior.9 For many parents this is confusing. We connect with our kids when we empathize with their ups and downs. However, this does not mean that we will always agree with the behavior that may have accompanied their feelings. A child may feel sad when left out of a game between his siblings, and respond by throwing a temper tantrum. We need to separate the feelings from the behavior. As parents we need to process the feelings of rejection, and empathize with our child, but we also need to voice our disapproval of his behavior (not of him or his feelings), and if necessary, apply an appropriate consequence. We need to communicate that there are some behaviors that are acceptable and others that are not. So while we accept their feelings, we absolutely believe there are certain circumstances in which we will not be able to empathize with them. We agree with Gottman that the following are times when it would be inappropriate to validate our children’s feelings: when we are triggered either by our children or by other people, when children are with their friends or in public, when the offence is serious, when children are trying to manipulate with their feelings, and when children are not prepared to talk and want some space first.
In conclusion, when you meet the core emotional need for connection and acceptance, and your connection is strong, not only will your children love and respect you, but they will enjoy being with you. When the core emotional need for connection and acceptance has been met, children will more naturally imitate their parents’ values and this in turn will help them resist being drawn to unhealthy delinquent behaviors, beliefs and ideologies. Spending time with your children, showing them empathy, and validating their feelings are the absolute most important ways to meet this need.