Empathy for Kids
Posted on January 8, 2013

Although it may seem in our parenting culture today that we have become more empathic to our children’s emotions, I am here to tell you that in fact we’ve just found a new way not to be. Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as: “Identification with and understanding of the thoughts and feelings of another.” Today we are only comfortable with our children feeling one emotion: Happiness.

Since we are only comfortable with happiness – sadness, frustration, worry, fear, restlessness, discomfort, boredom, irritability and uncertainty in our children are swiftly dis-validated, fixed, cheered-up or changed. Yet, these are human emotions that we all feel every day.

Most of us automatically try to rescue our children from these feelings. We routinely say, “it’s okay,” “everything’s fine,” “don’t worry,” “cheer up,” “I’ll fix it,” to “stop crying.” Instead of identification with or understanding their thoughts and feelings, we are essentially saying: “don’t feel that.” Our response is not empathic; it is simply another form of control, albeit more disguised than blatantly ignoring kid’s emotions.

Before we start getting harder on ourselves as parents, I have to say that I believe all of these responses are well-intentioned! Yet, I ask parents to look more mindfully at how trying to control our children’s feelings or trying to make them happy is not helping them mature emotionally. And it may even backfire where kids begin to feel like something is wrong with them when they are not feeling as happy as they think they should.

Instead we can normalize and validate children’s feelings. “That sounds upsetting, sweetie,” “I imagine that is frustrating!” “It is scary to try something new.” “It is sad to not get invited to the party.” “I always feel upset when I that happens to me.” When we normalize feelings, we are saying it is okay to feel and with that, kids process emotions much more quickly. They then move on and solve their problems.

Here’s a quick story. We had some friends over for dinner recently and the kids went downstairs after their dinner to watch a video while the adults tried to eat without too many child interruptions. Of course there were not enough seats for all the kids, and my youngest daughter came up crying that there was no chair for her and that no one would share one of their chairs. I immediately wanted to lecture (shut down her feeling) her on being a good host, and remind her that she always wants to have friends over. But I realized that would go nowhere. So instead I said, “That is so upsetting.” She folded up in my arms and lap and cried. When she cried out all her tears, she felt heard and seemed ready to solve her problem. I asked what she could do about it. I hinted that there were lots of pillows downstairs. She went back downstairs and I did not follow her – though I was tempted to fix her situation. Fifteen minutes later I checked on the kids and she was laying in a pile of pillows laughing with all the kids at the video. She did not need me to fix anything, she just needed to feel and vent and be heard and then she solved her problem.

Simply pausing, listening, normalizing and validating feelings, and refraining from fixing is empathy. It allows kids to process their feelings and solve their problems. We can even be empathic when we say no. “I imagine it is frustrating when you don’t get what you want.” “I imagine you will feel upset because I made a dinner that I know you don’t like, but I am still going to ask that you try it.” We can relate to the experience of disappointment and validate their feeling, even if we are one ones setting the limit. Try this!

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Krissy's lighthearted, humorous, gentle, and especially non-judgmental nature never failed to lift our spirits. I always appreciated her many stories and her use of metaphors to simply illustrate concepts which she felt we needed to deeply understand and begin to implement. I have worked in the medical field for almost 30 years now and have met many people along the way, but Krissy Pozatek stands out as one of the most gifted and talented people I have ever met. I wholeheartedly recommend her to "everyone" because I think that anyone would be lucky to have her as their therapist! We are forever grateful to her for her brilliant insights, her amazing skill at teaching us more appropriate responses, and most importantly, for helping us to heal our family. Susan P. (Parent of adolescent boy)
Having to send a child to Wilderness and then on to Therapeutic Boarding School was one of the lowest points of our lives and yet we realize now that we were truly blessed to have met Krissy. With her vast experience, eclectic knowledge, and abiding wisdom, Krissy has guided us through darkness and deep despair into the light and an ultimately successful outcome for our family. It has been an 18- month journey so far. During this time, she helped us “stay the course” when every fiber of our being wanted to “rescue our child.


Susan - California USA
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