Imagine this scenario: your child comes home from school and says, “Everyone hates me” (or some other heart-breaking statement).
Or imagine this one: your child really, really doesn’t want to do something that is important or non-negotiable—like wear a seatbelt or a helmet, or clean their room, or do piano practice.
What to do?
In the first scenario, we risk jumping in too fast to try to “solve” the problem (“No, they don’t sweetie. What about Chris, he’s your friend?”) in which case our kids miss the opportunity to learn to be with their feelings mindfully and to develop their coping skills (more on that subject here).
In the second scenario, we risk getting into a power struggle.
The best response is the same for both scenarios, and in fact works in almost any situation you can imagine: the answer is empathy. Empathy is "the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another."
Empathy may be the single most powerful tool that all parents have, and it's always available. If you don't know what else to do, try empathy.
Empathy harnesses the power of our emotions, which can easily overtake our reasoning (which is why empathy often works when reasoning fails).
When we practice empathy with our kids, we show respect for their feelings and their reality (which are often different from ours). We show that we are really listening, and that we understand (or at least are trying to understand) their point of view. Empathy has the power to sidestep or diffuse power struggles. Empathy also creates a safe place, emotionally, for our kids to be with hard feelings (like rejection or failure).
So, what does empathy look like in practice?
In the first example, an empathetic response would be something like this: “Oh sweetie, that sounds really hard (hug). Why do you think that?” In the second scenario, empathy might sound like this: “I know you don’t like cleaning your room, you don't think it's fun and you’d rather go play.” From there, you need to add a few other parenting techniques (such as make a reasonable request, and fair warning of consequences) in order to bring the situation to a comfortable close, but empathy is almost always the best starting place.
The next time you are presented with a parenting challenge of any kind, start with empathy. It really works (with adults, too). Try it and see.