Teaching Empathy Through Gentle Discipline

By Tamara Parnay

**Originally published in the Fall 2006 Divorce & Single Parenting issue of The Journal of API

Mom and sonOur children model our behavior. When surrounded by people who love them and respond to them sensitively and empathetically, they learn to respond this way to others. In my view, the API principle of Responding with Sensitivity best illustrates the concept of Attachment Parenting (AP). I may or may not adhere to all the principles of AP, but if emotional responsiveness does not permeate my parenting, then I question whether I can cultivate a strong bond with my children.

What if I am consistently emotionally responsive to my family, but I don’t make the effort to regularly model sensitivity to others outside my family? I can’t help wondering how this impacts my children’s emotional and moral development.

I’m not a die-hard Star Trek fan, but there is an episode that’s my favorite, one that’s always stayed with me: “The Empath.” As a child, I was mesmerized by this being who could feel and absorb other people’s pain. I remember her big, emotion-filled, empathic eyes and imagined that she could curl herself up around me, listen to me, and make me feel loved, drawing from me all my childhood pains.

What Does Empathy Look Like?

Generally, healthy and adjusted people are capable of empathy. Empathic individuals I know will stop, take off their sunglasses, and sit down to fully focus on the person with whom they are communicating. They relate well interpersonally, because they have the capacity to gain insights into the motives, behavior, and feelings of others. Furthermore, empathic people verbalize, or mirror back, other people’s feelings so that the other person feels understood.

Empathic people help others feel good about themselves. We gravitate to them. They are good friends to have around.

Not only are they excellent communicators, the empathic people I know feel enriched when surrounding themselves with those who hold different viewpoints and come from different backgrounds. They cherish diversity. They value other people’s experiences.

Yet, they seek to find common ground. They reach out to others in an attempt to connect. They seek communion. They look for compromise. They strive to identify with others by giving them the benefit of the doubt, being flexible and open-minded, and looking for ways to agree with them. They listen well – listen a lot – and speak a lot less.

Furthermore, these perceptive people have the ability to see themselves through the eys of others. This lets them be self-aware – not self-conscious – and therefore cognizant of how their words and actions impact others. They can even take this a step further, viewing a situation from that “third place” outside themselves and others. This additional perspective helps minimize conflicts and misunderstandings. Of course, if they do inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, they are able to proffer an apology free from any defensiveness.

Modeling Empathy in the Parent-Child Relationship

Empathic parenting involves all of the above. To maintain a close bond with my children, I strive to be consistently empathic in my interactions with them.

They need to feel that I relate well to them, that I can put their thoughts and feelings into words for them, that I am able to feel what they are feeling and anticipate their reactions and their needs. I need to stop, get down on their level, look them lovingly in the eyes, and listen to them with my full attention. I have to be flexible and willing to adjust my language and thoughts, to stay I am sorry when I’m wrong. I need to be able to step back and reflect on the events of the day, acknowledge what I did well and note what I can improve upon as their parents.

Empathic Parenting is AP

My children rely on my ability to connect – and reconnect – with them. They know that their coping abilities – even their survival – depend on a strong connection with me. My daughter knows when my mind is elsewhere. She commands, “Talk to me, Mama, talk to me.” What she means is, “Mama, listen to me. Engage yourself in what I’m saying. Mirror back what I’m telling you so I know you understand what I’m saying.”

Empathy as a Cornerstone in Gentle Discipline

It’s not that I would avoid responding to my children with what they don’t want to hear. There are times I need to draw the line on a behavior or action, redirect my children’s focus, set a boundary, turn down a request, etc. Sometimes, I do upset my children with what I have to say. It’s how I go about it that matters. The goal is to gently and empathetically discipline my children.

The Three Es

The Behavior: My child throws a toy, wants to visit a friend but it’s too late, have another cookie but it’s too close to dinner, etc.

The Solution:

  1. ENCOURAGE a solution – If possible, without actually talking my child she can’t do these things, I will prompt her to come up with an acceptable solution on her own, which tends to be more effective than my suggestions: “Since you can’t throw your toy, what could you throw? And where could we go to throw it?” “Since it’s getting late, can you think of another time when you could see your friend?” “You have already had a cookie. If you are 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 her feelings of anger, sadness, and/or frustration and let her know I understand how she feels by putting her feelings into words: “I can tell you are feeling very [name the emotion]. It’s very frustrating when you can’t do what you want to do [or have what you want to have].”
  3. EXPLAIN my feelings – I will let her know why I feel the way I do, which reinforces the fact that I am going to stand firm: “When you throw toys like that inside the house, I worry that someone might get hurt.” “I’m afraid there won’t be enough time for you to play with your friend before you need to go to bed, and you need a goodnight’s sleep.” “I’m concerned that you won’t be hungry for the dinner we’re going to have soon.”

Children need guidance and limits. Being an attachment parent does not mean that I must always keep my children from experiencing negative emotions.

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