Empathy - The Most Important Trait of a Parent


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


Empathy is a word that we do not use a lot but it is an important trait in any relationship especially the Parent/Child relationship. Some have said without empathy the parent/child relationship does not exist.

Empathy is the capacity to sense what is happening emotionally inside your child. It is the capacity to forget about your own feelings long enough to understand your child's thought process. (Even if you don't agree with their thinking)

Some have defined empathy as hurting when your child hurts and sensing happiness when your child is happy.The statement, "I feel for you." implies you are empathetic. Friendships are based on the fact that two people report that they feel understood by each other. It seems to be an important need of human beings to be understood. Even when your child is misbehaving it is important to them to know that the most significant person in the world understands.They want to feel your understand, even if your do not agree.

Understanding does not change what you do to help your child when they make mistakes. You still must guide them by imposing consequences they probably will not like. Communicating that you understand, under such circumstances, is hard. I did not understand this was what my parents were trying to say to me when they said, "This hurts me more then it hurts you." They were saying they understood the mistakes I had made, they also understood the feelings that are associated with learning from those mistakes, and they hurt when I suffered while learning the difficult lessons in life.

If empathy is so important, why do parents have such a difficult time communicating empathy to their children?I think it is because parents want so much for their children that they become angered when their children make unwise choices. Anger is not a way to show empathy.

I think it is also hard because parents sometimes are so wrapped up in their own feelings that they forget what their child is feeling. I think it is because parents become frustrated and feel that their children are not sensing the importance of their decisions and want to somehow bypass empathy and "forcefully" and "intensely" "make" their children understand.

It is hard to be empathetic. It is hard to sense what is going on inside your child's skin. It is especially hard when it seems that your child is ignoring everything you have tried to teach them. The truth is that this is the very time your child needs you to understand the most. (Do not confuse understanding with agreeing.)

To be empathetic the parent must give up the desire to control. The parent must get rid of the need to be loved and appreciated by the child.The parent must also recognize that logic will not change a child's selfish or immature way of thinking.

When this can be done the parent is free to stand back, think through the situation, and decide what alternatives are available to help the child learn to be responsible. Once this is done the parent can communicate their love for the child by letting the child know how sad they are that unwise choices have been made.The parent then can impose the consequences.

When the emotion the parent is expressing is love or empathy the child is more likely to learn from the experience. When the emotion expressed is not love or empathy then the child may decide they are bad or they may become angry with a parent whom they feel does not understand them.

The conclusion we can draw from this fact is that a parent is on solid ground if they are empathetic when they discipline a child. A parent is on pretty shaky ground if they are judgmental and/or angry when they discipline their child. If a parent can recognize and tap into the natural love he or she possess and be empathetic to the child, the tendency to be impatient and controlling melts away. The parent can then be more patient with the child as he/she matures.But more important, the parentís relationship with the child is preserved, even if the child must be disciplined or is having difficulty learning the lessons of life.