Last weekend I took my daughter to the mall. While she was busy perusing Hot Topic, I was sitting by myself at one of those couch waiting areas in the center of the mall. The allergens here in FL have been crazy lately, so I put in a few eye drops. I always have some overflow, so I wiped my eyes a bit. All of a sudden, a young woman, about 20 years old came up to me and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but can I give you hug?” I was so startled I gave her a half way hug. (Truth be told my initial thought was, “Is she distracting me so that I don’t see her accomplice stealing my purse?!”- I quickly checked that my purse was still there, and it was.) I then realized what she was doing: She thought I was crying and was giving me support and empathy! I did tell her that I had just put in eye drops, and she quickly walked away, but while she was leaving, my only thought was:

Where did she learn to do that?!

The subject of empathy has come up a lot in my world lately. Probably because I am teaching more classes and doing more coaching than ever before, and also because so much of the foundation of Positive Discipline is about empathizing with your child’s experience and teaching them empathy.

Now many of us know that this is what we are supposed to do. We read, we follow bloggers; we get things on our Facebook feed. But the questions I have been getting most often lately are: “What if you weren’t raised with empathy? What if it feels FALSE? And does it work?”

If you weren’t raised with empathy, you are not alone.  The authoritarian parenting model did not include it, and therefore, I would venture to say that most of us did not have it growing up. Our parents did the best they could with the information they had, but they really didn’t seem to care that we were upset about having to turn off the TV or wash the dishes.

Their generation was different and society was different. Part of the reason we have to “practice” and “teach” empathy today is because of our societies’ inherent disconnectedness. When we don’t look people in the eye (looking at screens), empathy cannot be developed.  We cannot feel each other’s pain. We cannot see what is REALLY going on for that person. Back in the “old days”, it was easier to experience this first hand as we had more of an inherent connection.  Today, we have to teach and model it.
Many experts say, “Give empathy/practice empathy/be empathetic”, but most don’t talk about how hard it can be to get into that headspace. This is especially true when a parent is frazzled, tired, in a rush or juggling twelve things at once, or,  if you weren’t raised with it. The best advice I received is to “Fake it until you make it.”

Yes, the words may feel false at first, it may feel like a foreign language, and your child may look at you like, “huh?” but, keep trying it out. It helps to try to go deeper inside yourself and explore the feelings behind the words. What are they bringing up for you? Do you feel you are being too nice, too horizontal in your relationship, too something else? For me, I notice that it brings up feelings of being “less than”, or losing my position of “power”. Sometimes I feel “too nice” and feel like I should be sterner. See what comes up. If you can begin to identify the feelings behind your behavior it will help it to become easier. Also, acting “as if” brings about physiological changes in your brain, therefore developing new neural pathways to where this practice actually DOES become more natural.

One of the other most important things we can do to allow this practice to become more natural is to encourage and have empathy FOR OURSELVES. (Yes, I know, probably tougher than giving it to our kids!) Using mantras such as: I am a good enough parent, My children love me, I am worthy of respect and support and understanding can help.  If need be, use post its or other reminders for yourself.

And lastly, does empathy work to stop bad behavior? No, not always. But nothing stops behaviors all the time. The thing about using empathy is that even if it isn’t “working” in the moment, it IS working to change the world. My experience at the mall has reminded me of this.  We too can change the world, one child (or one adult!) at a time.

Hope it helps!