Teaching Empathy to Kids

What hopes and dreams do you have for your kids?

Do you want them to do well in school? Have good friends who love and support them? Build a successful career doing what they love? Find a healthy, loving relationship and start a family of their own some day?

As both a marriage counselor and a parent myself, I can tell you that these are the dreams that most parents, including myself, have for their children. There’s one skill that’s essential for making all of these dreams and many others a reality: empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotional experience, and to connect with it from a compassionate place. Empathetic people have healthier relationships, a wider circle of support, stronger self-esteem, and greater success in every area of life. Fortunately, we all have the power to help our kids hone their empathy, and this article will help you do that. 

I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Georgi B., a parent coach and a marriage counselor on our team at Growing Self. Georgi is sharing some valuable parenting tips on teaching empathy to kids. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

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Teaching Empathy to Kids

The connections we have with our caregivers when we’re very small are where we begin to hone our incredible human capacity for empathy. It’s the skill that allows us to understand the emotional experiences of others, and to connect with them in a healthy and loving way.

Every parent has hopes and dreams for their children, and empathy is a crucial skill for making those hopes and dreams a reality. It has a major impact on self-esteem, the trajectory of your career, your friendships, and especially on your romantic relationships. Without empathy, it’s impossible to truly thrive. 

To raise happy, healthy kids who can love and be loved, parents must model empathy for their children, and actively help them cultivate it in themselves. Here’s how. 

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the basic building block of connection and understanding. Being empathetic means being able to connect with someone on an emotional level, because you can understand how they’re feeling and thinking. This skill allows us to care about other people’s wellbeing as much as our own, foster love and mutual respect, create healthy levels of trust, and build closeness and connection in our most important relationships. 

At the most basic level, empathy is the understanding of another person’s emotional experience, which children begin to develop at a very young age. Translating that understanding into helpful actions is a more complex task that takes some practice and maturation to master. In other words, just because your toddler understands that another child is sad doesn’t mean they’ll know how to respond to them — in fact, they may do something that makes the situation worse, like shove a toy in their face — but it does mean the basic roots of empathy are beginning to form. 

How to Teach Empathy to Kids

You can help your child develop empathy by modeling it in your relationship with them. One easy way to do this is to put yourself in their shoes and help them label their emotions, especially during “teaching moments” or when you’re disciplining. 

For example, when your child is crying in the store, you might say something like, “I understand you’re feeling really frustrated about not being able to have the candy. I know you were really looking forward to getting some candy, and that now you’re feeling disappointed and sad.” Just acknowledging your child’s feelings is incredibly validating. It helps them to recognize how they’re feeling, which is the first step in learning how to manage their emotions and connect with those of others. 

It’s also important for you to remain in touch with your own feelings. When you aren’t aware of how you feel, it’s impossible to understand another person’s inner experience. Building your emotional intelligence will help you develop self-compassion, which helps you remain empathetic in your relationship with your children. 

Your relationships with other people are also an opportunity to model empathy for your kids, especially in your relationship with your partner. Do you validate each other’s feelings? Do you empathize with them? Do you show that how your partner feels matters to you? These practices not only improve your relationship with your partner, they model a healthy, loving relationship for your kids.

Here are a few other activities that can help you teach empathy to your children:

  1. Naming emotions, for yourself, the child, and others — even characters in movies. Go beyond happy, sad, and mad and dig into the more nuanced emotions, like overwhelmed, hopeful, or annoyed. Check out the feelings wheel for more ideas.
  2. Role playing is a way to encourage your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. You can ask them to act out a situation with you, like working hard to make dinner, or being the new kid in school, and imagine what it would be like to be in those positions, and what you’d want from the people around you.
  3. Acting with puppets or dolls is another fun variation on role playing, especially for young children.
  4. Encouraging your kids to journal about their feelings, or to write from another person’s perspective, can be a good activity for building understanding and empathy. 

Attachment and Empathetic Kids

When you’re there for your children and you meet their needs, they learn to trust and rely on you. This is how the strong attachment bond between parents and children forms, and it provides a roadmap that they’ll use for the rest of their lives in forming close attachment relationships

When the attachment bond between parents and kids isn’t strong and secure, children are more defiant and more prone to behavioral problems. Because the child hasn’t experienced their parent as someone who can be relied on to meet their needs, they don’t fundamentally trust the parent to know what’s best for them. When the parent puts their foot down, the child fights back, leading to power struggles and trust issues in the relationship (not that every power struggle between children and parents is about an attachment problem!). 

Empathy is essential for meeting your child’s emotional needs and forming a strong, secure attachment with them. In order to trust you and rely on you, your kids need to know not only that you’ll provide them with food and shelter, but that you care about how they feel and what they think. When you make a mistake as a parent (as every parent does), they need to see that you’ll acknowledge it and make a meaningful apology. That demonstrates empathy, and turns a mistake into an opportunity to teach your child something valuable — how to repair a relationship.

Empathy and “Gentle Parenting”

One parenting approach that emphasizes modeling empathy is gentle parenting. If gentle parenting could be summed up in a mantra, it would be “I love you, and I won’t let you.” Gentle parenting is about connecting with your child through validation, empathy, and listening. When you practice gentle parenting, you still set limits with your child, but you help them understand why those limits are in place, which helps them learn to trust and respect your limits. 

Gentle parenting also teaches self-regulation skills, which are essential for empathizing with others, because it’s difficult to empathize with someone else when you’re emotionally flooded by stress or anger. You can show your child what it looks like to regulate your emotions by talking them through your process. For example, if you’re feeling upset about something, you might say, “I’m feeling upset right now. I think I need to take a break and calm down so we can keep talking about this. I’m going to sit down and take a few deep breaths. Do you want to join me?”

When you show kids how to validate and accept their own feelings, you teach them that nothing they’re feeling is bad or wrong. Adults who never learn that are prone to self-esteem issues and shame around their feelings. It also helps them learn to manage their emotions. To self-regulate, you first have to have some awareness of and acceptance for what you’re feeling. 

If you practice gentle parenting, your children will likely begin to share their feelings with you more readily. This is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when the emotions they share stir up emotions in you. When your child tells you they’re upset, or angry, or sad about something, try not to respond with defensiveness or by telling them they’re making you upset by sharing how they feel. Focus on listening, validating, and responding with empathy before sharing your own feelings. 

Raising Empathetic Kids

Empathetic adults have healthier relationships, stronger self-esteem, and they act with kindness and compassion. To help your kids develop their capacity for empathy, you need to form a secure relationship with them and model empathy every day.

Want more resources on raising empathetic kids? Here are a few books on the topic that Georgi recommends for you: 

  1. “Raising Good Humans” by Hunter Clarke-Fields
  2. “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read” by Philippa Perry
  3. “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids” by Carla Naumberg
  4. “Scaffold Parenting” by Harold S. Koplewics
  5. “The Danish Way of Parenting” by Jessica Joelle Alexander & Iben Dissing Sandhal 
  6. “The Importance of Being Little” by Erika Christakis 
  7. “Ready, Set, Go!” by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
  8. “The Conscious Parent” by Shefali Tsabary 
  9. “The Whole Brain Child” by Dr. Daniel Siegel & Dr. Tina Bryson 
  10. “No Drama Discipline” by Dr. Daniel Siegel & Dr. Tina Bryson

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Teaching Empathy to Kids

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Music in this episode is by Mersiv with their song “Future Destination.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: We all want the best for our children. And I think the most important thing for most parents, including myself, is to have kids grow up into happy, healthy, successful adults who are able to love and be loved and have positive relationships with other people. And that’s one of the conversations that gets overlooked in all the parenting talk sometimes. 

Today, we’re talking about how to raise empathetic kids, and why the relationship that you have with your children is the key to their life in many ways, being full of positive, meaningful connections with others. In my nearly two decades as a marriage counselor, I’ve talked with so many parents about their hopes and dreams for their children. I am also a mother of two and I have hopes and dreams for my kids too. 

I think it’s fair to say that virtually all parents, more than anything, want their kids to grow into kind, compassionate people who have positive relationships with others and also have a moral center. They know what the right thing is, and they’re committed to doing it. Parents want their kids to be successful in school and work and be surrounded by people who love them and care about them throughout their lives. 

What is also true is that these sorts of hopes can be ephemeral. But there is a path to helping your children actualize these outcomes in their lives, and that is cultivating empathy in your kids. The key to connecting with others, building meaningful relationships to acting ethically and compassionately and even professional success is strongly tied to empathy. 

It is also a skill that begins developing early before babies hold their little heads up, they’re taking in information about their caregiver’s emotions, and beginning to resonate with those emotions themselves. So for that reason, the relationship we all have with our kids, is where our children begin to hone their incredible human capacity for empathy, and which will serve them for the rest of their lives. 

It is so important to nurture that development with intention, and today’s podcast is going to help you learn how to do just that. Joining me for this conversation is my colleague here, a Growing Self, Georgie, who is also a marriage and family therapist on our team. And a parent coach with lots of experience in helping parents create these kinds of nurturing bonds with their children.

Georgie is a true expert in helping parents connect with their kids from an empathetic place specializing in gentle parenting. And Georgie, there is nobody else I would rather talk with about the subject than you. Thank you for joining me today.

Georgie: Yeah, thank you for having me. I was just telling my husband last night that this is like, my favorite thing to geek out about. So I’m like this. I love it. I love it.

Lisa: Well maybe we could even start our conversation right there. Why is this subset of marriage and family therapy your favorite because you do a lot of things. You do couples counseling, you do premarital counseling, you often help people build better relationships with others. But why is your favorite thing the connection between parents and kids?

Georgie: Man, so many reasons, but I think the biggest one is that I I believe it has the longest lasting impact in somebody’s life. So the experiences we have with our parents, from an early age go with us into adulthood. And like you said at the beginning it impacts how they can relate to others as they grow and develop and then future intimate romantic relationships. I tell people all the time, my job is to not have a job. 

If I can start with a kid, and train them to be empathetic people, then they’re less likely to reach out and need more serious support later on. So it’s impactful.

Lisa: It really is. And I don’t know if you had this experience professionally, but I came to the same conclusion. When I was doing my master’s program for counseling. I was like, You know what? The best way for me to help the most people is by helping children, right? Because if we can help kids early, it will prevent them from being in situations that will lead to negative life events, mental health issues. 

I thought briefly for a time that I might like to be a child psychologist. I had my very first child client, it was horrible, in this little practicum room with a one way window. So my instructors were outside watching me. And so I went into the room with this kid who was probably seven, the kid immediately went under the couch in the play therapy room. And so I am on my hands and knees, kind of looking under the couch trying to get this kid to come out. 

My instructors behind the glass were like, “What is she doing?” They missed the part where the kid went into the couch or like, “Is she praying? Is she having a  sychotic breakdown? Is she cry– do we need to go in there and intervene?” It was sort of mortifying, but anyway, not just because of that experience, it was like, “I’m not going to be a child psychologist.”

But I think also realizing that, as therapists, we really have limitations around what we can do for children, like a kid coming into our office for one hour a week to do therapy, much less impactful than what we can do to help kids by helping their parents see better relationships with each other, and also with the children. So long winded story, but I wanted you to know, I am right there with you that that’s our point of power in some ways.

Georgie: Right. I completely agree. I mean, I do a little bit of play therapy as well. And I’m always trying to involve parents as much as possible, because they’re gonna have their parents for the rest of their life, probably, but they’re not going to have me and they shouldn’t have me for the rest of their life. So I think that’s so true that that’s where the change can start and keep going. I think it’s with the parents.

Lisa: If every parent listening to this right now the ultimate goal is, “I want to raise a happy, healthy child, who can love and be loved and have positive relationships and successful outcomes in life?” Why is empathy so crucial to creating this?

Georgie: That’s such a good question because I do think empathy bleeds into any dynamic with another person, right? Like you’re saying, even in a business relationship, this idea of empathy and emotional intelligence can really go far. 

I think when it comes to empathy, impacting children to being kind to adults, and having successful relationships, it makes me think that it’s like the building block of being able to connect with people being able to communicate your emotions, being able to ask for what you need, and being able to give what other people need in return. 

That’s essentially, if we boil down like, healthy relationships, it’s asking for anything to get what you need, right? So I think that without empathy, that’s really, really hard to do well.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a good point. And your experience in working with children and families, who are so well intentioned, right? I think parents always act in the best interests of their children to the best of their ability. And sometimes this looks like a raw food diet. Sometimes this looks like a lot of routines or sometimes it looks like different practices all really intended to create healthy, well, kids.

What are some of the things that you have seen parents unintentionally doing that are actually sabotaging some of the outcomes that we’ve been talking about? That being able to have empathetic kids with positive relationships and successful outcomes? Like, what do some parents think is the right thing to do, from your perspective, as a family therapist, you work with them to try to correct?

Georgie: Right. That’s a really good question. I think most often, we’ve kind of grown, at least from what I’ve seen, into this parenting culture of discipline being a very positive and negative reinforcement based thing. So if a child is acting out, and they’re expressing big emotions, like screaming and crying, you don’t want those emotions to be there. 

In order to help with that, you give a consequence, you say, if you don’t stop crying in this grocery store, you’re gonna get a spanking, or we’re going home or you’re not gonna get that candy, right? That goes immediately to a consequence, which isn’t a bad thing. There should be consequences for behaviors, but I think a lot of parents miss an opportunity to teach something really valuable right there. And that is that moment of like, empathy, and it might also be helpful if we even define empathy.

Lisa: Let’s, yeah. 

Georgie: Because I think, at least for me, and maybe you have a different one you want to share. But for me, I think empathy is being able to connect with someone on an emotional level, because you can understand how they’re feeling. And so those are those moments that I’m talking about, like in the grocery store, where it actually requires a lot more training for the parent than I think, even for the kid in that moment. 

Because it requires you to put on your empathy hat, in order to teach your child about empathy and those moments, too. So I think going back to that example, what parents most often do is just jump straight to a consequence. But if we’re using that moment to teach empathy, maybe a better approach is to remind yourself, what would it be like to be two years old, in a really bright and chaotic grocery store and I really want that piece of candy. 

“I know, it tastes so good, I might even be a little bit hungry. I’m really excited about it. I’m thinking about it the whole time. We’re grocery shopping, because mom told me if I’m really good, I can get this piece of candy, right? But I’m, I’m a little bit cranky and a little bit tired.” And then all of a sudden, she says, “Nope, you can’t have that,” I would lose my mind. That would be really frustrating. 

I think in that moment, you can remind yourself of how it feels to be frustrated to not get something you’re really hoping for. And then say that to your child like, “Man, you are so frustrated right now, you’re really wanting to have that candy. Right? That must be so frustrating. I wish we could have that. But when we scream, and when we hit or do those things, sometimes we can’t get what we want.”

Even just that small piece of like putting a name to that feeling, I think is a way to help your child kind of learn from that feeling.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely to label the emotions and acknowledge them. And as you were talking, just then, you know about, like trying to put yourself in your kid’s shoes, even just for a second I know that you work with more kids than I do. But I’m even thinking about couples or my own relationships where I think we all want more than anything to feel validated, if we are feeling something big, if we are frustrated or stressed or angry, to have somebody be like, you are mad, and I understand why. 

That is what, I think, we all crave. And so you’re talking about being able as a parent to give that recognition and validation to your child to help them experience the– like respect for their emotions. Is that it?

Georgie: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And I guess I think it starts with you having to explore as a parent, are you in tune with what you’re feeling all the time? Can you put words to your emotions? Can you kind of flex that muscle too, because most often, I would say parents come to me saying my child’s doing X, Y, and Z. And I’m like, “Okay, where are you at right now?” And we really do a lot of work with the parents first. 

Because without that, it’s so hard to empathize with something we’ve never felt or didn’t think we’ve felt before. And so that, I think that can be a really, really good place for parents to start.

Lisa: Wow. So I think you’re saying that perhaps that that parent who is now an adult, maybe did not get raised in an environment where they were taught to understand or label or make sense of their own feelings. And so now as adults, they struggle to kind of connect with their own inner experience, much less their child’s and so in order to be able to have that kind of relationship with your kid. You need to work on yourself. What I think I’m hearing you say, Georgie.

Georgie: Yeah. Definitely. Sometimes that might even look like couples work to like, if your partner is unable to validate you, you can’t validate them. That can also be a really good place to start to kind of keep flexing that muscle, so to speak. But, yeah.

Lisa: Now is what we’re talking about right now– and this idea of raising empathetic children being a cornerstone of their ultimate kind of wellness as an adult? Is this related to the idea of attachment?

Georgie: Yes, very much. So. Yeah. So basically what attachment theory tells us is that we learn to trust others, love others, love ourselves based on the experiences we have with them, right? So we even think about the basic level of attachment between parent and child, it starts when you’re a newborn. If your needs are met, if you’ve learned that my mom feeds me and takes care of me, and I’m safe and warm, I can go to her, I can cry, and she’ll respond, right? 

That kind of keeps going throughout your adulthood as well. Like if I have a need, and I express my emotions, someone is there and ready to respond to me in that way. And so the same that empathy is a huge piece of that where we can’t understand each other’s emotions until we try to have empathy for them. And I think that’s kind of what you’re speaking to at the validation piece. It’s really, really hard to feel validated if empathy isn’t happening.

I’m sure maybe some of you listeners can think of a time when someone was like, “Yeah, that sucks.” Right? And it was like, “Man, I just kind of poured my heart out to you. And all you said was that sucks.” Like, that doesn’t quite feel right versus maybe someone who sat with you and held your hand and maybe even cried with you. And maybe they never really experienced exactly what you’re going through. 

But it felt like they did. Right. Because there is that empathy. 

Lisa: Yeah. 

Georgie: So there’s a difference there. And I think those moments of empathy really helped develop that secure attachment where we learn, “Wow, my heart was out there, and it was caught. And someone was there for me at that moment.”

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Well, also being able to do that for other people like to be that friend who is able to empathize and be like, loving and responsive. Those are the micro moments that build relationships and strengthen relationships and why this idea is so intrinsic to having a nice life as an adult is because there’s a lot of research that that shows very clearly that your happiness and well being as an adult is really very much defined by the quality of your relationships. 

It’s so important. And so, the empathy piece is a very important part of attachment. And as we know, sometimes attachment cannot be secure, right? Those positive experiences early in life. So if kids are maybe raised in an environment with caregivers who maybe aren’t intentionally or accidentally being empathetic towards them and nurturing towards them, what winds up happening instead?

Georgie: Yeah, I think it can really feel for the parent, like there’s a power struggle. I think that’s most often what it can look and feel like is you putting your foot down as the parent, your child fighting back, they’re basically there’s a lack of trust that my parent knows what’s best for me, they care enough about me to set a boundary or consequence. And I trust that they know what they’re talking about. 

I think, at the base level, what I see most often an extreme example, with those like insecure attachments where that’s missing, you start to see more of the very like, averse, I think, outcomes things like extreme anxiety, depression, acting out behaviors, defiance, stuff like that.

Lisa: Yeah. And just so everybody knows, nobody is saying that it’s wrong to set limits or have boundaries with your children. And there is not a parent in the history of the world who has not gotten into a power struggle over something so pleased. But Georgie, I think I’m hearing you say when those kinds of experiences feel disconnected from trust, that it can begin to damage the quality of that attachment, and have negative results for kids and the adults that they grow into? 

Are we starting to talk about different attachment styles either an anxious attachment style and avoidant attachment style? Does that lack of empathy contribute to the formation of those or do you sort of see them as being different?

Georgie: I think that can. Yeah, I think, like we said a little earlier, I think because empathy is so closely tied to the building blocks of a secure relationship. If empathy is consistently lacking, then that could develop into one of those insecure relationships. As trust is a big part of security and attachment, and if I learned that my emotions aren’t validated, or my needs aren’t met, then I’m more likely to err towards some of those insecure attachment styles. 

But I do also, if we could go a little bit back, because I want to be careful not to shame any parents out there with this because being a new mom, I don’t think I’ve shared this yet I have almost a one year old and, man, mom guilt is so real. 

Lisa: And it never ends. Never good enough.

Georgie: Yes, and there’s so many rules, and so many books and so many things that you need to do better and always doing better. And so the reason why though, that I love this topic, and I love empathy is it actually is so easy to do differently. 

Even if you are listening to this so far, and you’re thinking, “Man, I’ve really already messed up, I think I’ve screwed up my kids, I think they have an insecure attachment style.” Please just take a deep breath because the reason why– I’ll give you a secret– the reason why I do what I do, and actually geek out about attachment so much is that attachment is so fluid, and it’s always changing. 

Which gives me so much hope that even if you have just totally done no empathy yet, with your kids, if you start now, that already sets them up for more success the next time and there’s always opportunities to do it better. So give yourself some grace.

Lisa: Thank you for saying that, Georgie, because you’re totally right. Parents, I think especially moms, can be so hard on themselves. And it can feel like this all or nothing thing like, “I have broken my child.” Right? And I just love this reminder of that growth mindset and that relationships are living things, they can be mended, they can be repaired, and that it is never too late. Yes, yeah.

And I think that can even be one of the most impactful empathy building moments whenever you mess up as a parent and you acknowledge that with your kid. And I can vividly remember a time when my parents did that, where I was not seen and heard, and I was so sad and felt so alone. And they came in, they said, “I’m so sorry, like I missed you. Just then, I realized you are feeling really upset. I didn’t respond the way I should have, I’m so sorry.” 

That stood out and still stands out to me. And that taught me to say– to acknowledge how someone else is feeling, to apologize for how I made them feel, and then to make a choice to do better the next time. And that’s empathy. So even if you mess up like, man, that’s still an opportunity to teach them something.

Lisa: Absolutely. I’m so glad. Thank you for sharing that story. That’s awesome. And I think that that is, you know exactly what it is. If we think about wounding experiences in relationships, as children or adults, it always boils down to I think, either people not recognizing how you feel, or not caring about how you feel, just like– that your experiences are not taken into consideration, right? Those things are wounding and so what you’re talking about is very simple. 

It’s just the opposite of that. It’s, “I see you and how you’re feeling right now matters to me. And we’re still not buying the gummy worms. I understand how you feel. I respect that.” Right?

Georgie: That’s good. That’s good. If y’all haven’t seen the gentle parenting blog that I wrote a while ago, it gives a little bit of tips to help with that. And what you just said reminded me of something in there, Lisa, maybe a good phrase to start with as a parent is, “I love you and I won’t let you.” There’s still this moment of like, “I love you, I see you, I acknowledge these feelings. And because of that, I’m not going to let you eat gummy worms for dinner, or stay up until 2am with me or run across the street.” 

Georgie: Both messages are really important when you’re teaching empathy and setting limits.

Lisa: Yeah, and thank you so much for bringing up that gentle parenting idea. And I know that you are a huge advocate of this parenting method, which I really appreciate. You have written a wonderful article on our blog at growing self.com on this topic, but I’m not sure if we really talked about this on the podcast before and so for the benefit of our listeners, can you talk a little bit more about the gentle parenting approach and how it ties in to this idea of empathy and insecure attachment?

Georgie: Yeah. So there’s lots of different parenting techniques and I think ultimately you have to do it feels right for you. But I think gentle parenting is a really good blend of some approaches to help with this empathy piece and attachment. And the reason for that is that it really is anchored in this idea of emotional intelligence and helping your child learn about their emotions and express those emotions through validation through empathy. And then you set limits. 

There’s a common myth that gentle parenting is just letting them get away with whatever they want. And that’s absolutely not true. You actually do set limits, but you, you teach the child to understand why those limits are in place, and that you as the parent, can trust you and respect your decision to set those limits, even if they don’t fully grasp why, right? 

Yeah. Gentle parenting is a lot about kind of starting with that validation piece, like,  I see that you’re so frustrated, or maybe you’re really tired right now, you missed your nap today, and you’re so tired. And that’s so hard. And you really want to keep playing, I know you do, I can see that that’s so important to you right now. But it’s nap time and your body needs rest. So let’s go take a nap.” So something like that is what maybe a gentle parenting approach would sound like. 

The thing I love most about gentle parenting actually, is that it teaches a lot of like regulation skills, so that they can empathize with people. Because if we’re too activated, if we’re too upset and stressed out and overwhelmed, it’s really hard to put our minds in that space of empathy. And so gentle parenting also says– like suggest, starting with some deep breath, like taking a moment to validate to help their brain get to a place of actually hearing a consequence. And then enforcing the consequence after that. 

Lisa: Well, and thank you for bringing up such a good reminder, which is when any of us are activated, upset. Not only do we not feel good, it is very difficult in those moments to have empathy for other people. And so by teaching emotional regulation skills, you are also making it easier for your child to have empathy for others, and close connections for others as a result.

Georgie: Yeah, absolutely. And again, it starts with the parent. And that is so so hard when your child is screaming and crying in the middle of a grocery store, and everybody’s looking at you. Like even just saying that I feel my heart racing a little bit. And so it requires a lot of you as the parent to learn, like, how can I regulate whenever my child’s throwing a temper tantrum? And then most times, it’s just modeling to your kids. 

Like, in the moment, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, say it out loud, say, “Oh, this is making me feel really overwhelmed right now. I think I need to take some deep breaths, I think I need to take a break. Maybe I should go outside where you come with me?” and show your child what it looks like to regulate and to talk through the difficult emotions you’re feeling. 

Lisa: Well, what a, again, fantastic reminder that in order to be able to do that, as parents, to have empathetic experiences that are nurturing for our children, it requires us to have the ability to regulate our own emotions in order to have empathy for them. And that’s a really great point. And if it’s okay, so, you are the mother of a cute little one year old and I am later in life than you are, Georgie, but, I’m thinking about teenagers right now. 

How is it equally important? Dr. John Gottman actually talks a lot about this. He has a book on the subject. I think it’s Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children, I want to say. But it’s how to have conversations with teenagers that feel respectful, and empathetic towards them. And I think that there are different stages of parenthood. 

Then once we get the whole toddler thing figured out, then we can cruise maybe for a little while, but then with teenagers, it’s like a different layer of how to be empathetic to someone who is, by objective measures, leaving their dirty clothes on the bathroom floor next to the hamper again.

Or right, does not want to do anything besides play video games. To have empathy for those that experience and be able to have productive conversations that feel respectful to a teenager because it can be hard on those moments like, “Why are you doing this?” But I think it’s also very important because just like toddlers, whose brains are going through explosive development, teens and tweens are in that same space, their brains kind of almost disintegrate and then rebuild during adolescence. 

To be able to engage with them in ways that set the tone of their relationships going forward. And so my husband and I have been working on some strategies at home but in your experience as a family therapist, have you found ways to apply some of these ideas to elementary school aged kids, tweens, teenager who are maybe not having a tantrum in a grocery store? 

Georgie: Very good point. Yeah. I’m really glad you bring that up. I think it’s so easy just to focus on the terrible twos, right? 

But the truth is that this empathy is always developing even into adulthood. We, Lisa, you and I are still learning how to be more empathetic human beings. And yea,I think a parent’s job isn’t just done when they reach elementary school or middle school. It’s ongoing but there are different strategies that might work with a two year old versus a 10 year old versus 15 year old. But I do think there is one skill that I’ve seen that can be consistent across the age group. 

I’ll start with that. And that is just simply naming emotions. So I’m constantly just kind of shocked at how little vocabulary my couples and clients and families come to me with when it comes to emotions, we would typically only really know the basics four: anger, sadness, happiness and fear. There’s so much nuance in emotions, and we can feel more than one at the same time even. But we don’t have the word to describe it. 

Usually, when that happens, our body goes into haywire, our brain does not know how to make sense of something it can’t name. But I think there’s just so much nuance and in our emotional experience that if we don’t have a name for it, that can be really distressing and can lead to even bigger feelings, right, like confusion and being overwhelmed and all that. 

All that to say, I think if you as a parent can have maybe a good handful of more complex emotion vocab words ready to offer your 10 year old or 15 year old or two year old, and just help them try it on. So you’re not forcing it. You’re not saying, “Oh, you’re feeling really embarrassed right now,” sometimes that can kind of set them off. And they’re like, “No.” Yeah, you probably know, “No, I’m not embarrassed.”

“Okay. So is there something else you might be feeling right now? If you are just frustrated, usually, that’s a safe place to start frustration. I wonder if there might be some like feeling overwhelmed, I would feel overwhelmed.” If I were in your shoes, and just offered different words, even if they don’t accept them, they at least heard a new word that they could put in their pocket for next time. But I think that’s a really good place to start, no matter what age, I do work with some teenagers particularly. 

I’ve seen that with teaching empathy with those teenagers, a lot of times, it’s helpful just to hear from other people. So instead of putting them on the spot for you, as the parent to say, like, “Man, when I didn’t make it on the sports team, when I was your age, that really was disappointing. I felt kind of lost at that moment. That might be how you’re feeling. That’s how I felt. So it would make sense if you felt that way too.” 

Just kind of starting there. You showing an example of what empathy looks like, can be a really good way to help them learn.

Lisa: I love that, and also like normalizing their experience by also digging into your own kind of internal library of life experiences, kind of flipping back through the pages to when you were 14 or 15. And, really reconnecting with, “How did it feel when I had this experience or a disappointment?” And being able to put that into words is not just helping them label their emotions, but communicating that of course, you felt that way. I felt this way. And how validating is that?

Georgie: Yeah, absolutely. And the only other thing I might add to that too, is that most often I see parents trying their very hardest to connect with their kids, but ultimately, maybe creating more Difficulty in that attachment relationship is when parents hear their child say something about them. Right? “But mom, whenever you like, send me to my room or didn’t show up on time like totally forgot about me,”

Like big, big moments that as a parent, when you hear your child’s upset by that, oh my gosh, your heart just sinks, your heart breaks, you feel so guilty, maybe you feel a lot of shame. And you go into that place. Oftentimes I see parents stay in that place of guilt or shame. And instead of meeting their child where they’re at emotionally, they talk about their shame and guilt, 

Lisa: Or get defensive.

Georgie: Yes, or get defensive. Right. 

Lisa: But you’re saying it turns into being about them. Either, “That’s not what happened. That’s not what I meant,” or slipping out and kind of breaking down. And now it’s the mom show.

Georgie: Exactly. And that’s coming from such a good place, I want to say. Like that– it’s showing how much you care about your child that you go to that place. But that, I see, puts that in the child in this position of, “Okay, I can’t talk about my feelings right now. And I kind of feel like I have to make my parents feel better right now. And that feels very confusing for them.”

Lisa: Right? “If I talk about how I feel, that hurts my parents, and now I need to stop what I was feeling so that I can try to help them and put them back together.” How does that impact kids long term?

Georgie: Yeah, I think it could possibly train them over time, that happens enough that, “I can’t talk about my feelings. First of all, when I talk about them, it makes it worse, or it’s a burden to other people.” Or it teaches them to do the same, right? It teaches them that, “Whenever someone else shares their feelings, I respond with defensiveness.” So that’s, I think, what I would say could happen. 

Lisa: That at the very least- it’s a lost opportunity for how to handle that and a really healthy way they’re going into like, people pleasing, sort of emotional enmeshment, or closed off and defensiveness. And I do want to share just one last thing that hopefully will be helpful for listeners.

I can’t tell you over the years, how many clients I’ve had either as individual clients or in couple of situations.Who really, really struggle with feeling okay about themselves on the inside, they are carrying a lot of not even shame, like self hatred, they feel anxious about themselves, they expect that other people won’t like them, or will criticize them. 

And it really has a negative impact not just on the way that they feel, mentally and emotionally, but on their relationships too. Because that can do weird things to relationships, like when you come in from that space.

To a person, when I crack into that with them. I hear stories like some of the not to dues that you’re talking about today, where they often experienced a lot of shame or criticism as a child, where there was no respect, much less validation for how they were feeling. And because of that, I think that they sort of grew into interpreting their own feelings as being wrong as being bad as being shameful. And it really impacted their self esteem. 

Have you noticed that as well in your work, that there’s a correlation between having empathetic relationships in childhood and kind of correlations with higher self esteem in adulthood?

Georgie: Absolutely yes. Yeah. So it reminds me of that insecure attachment style idea where, “If I learn when I offer my emotions, when I might go to that place of vulnerability and put my heart out there, if it isn’t caught, if it isn’t validated and seen and heard, then I’ve learned from that experience that I, one, maybe can’t trust other people, or two, I’m not enough. My feelings aren’t good enough. I can’t trust myself. I can’t trust myself.”

And how, man, just how disorienting that is later on in adulthood, whenever it’s time to be in a romantic relationship, and you have all these feelings because they’re natural to have. But then you immediately go to that place but wait, I can’t feel that or I shouldn’t feel that or even if it is okay to feel that I can’t say it out loud because X, Y, and Z might happen and it’s amazing how those experiences really carry with us.

Lisa: Well, I’m so grateful for your time today and just kind of talking about how to prevent that outcome for your children through these empathetic parenting practices and gentle parenting practices that you advocate. And I also really appreciate your message to all of us parents sitting with you today, which is to be gentle with yourself to give yourself some grace, and that you’re growing and nobody’s perfect. But are there any other last thoughts or ideas or tips that you’d like to leave with our listeners today? 

Or if we cover most of it?

Georgie: Now, I mean, I know you kind of give a little blurb like a written blurb before these podcasts on your blog, so maybe I can just offer some, like suggestions or book ideas. Would that be helpful? Well, maybe?

Lisa: I would love that. I bet our listeners would really like that, too. Okay, so that when we post this episode, we’ll be sure to get your book recommendations, and maybe even a tips list. And we’ll put that on the blog at growingself.com. The URL will probably be something like /empathetic-children, but you can always do a search, and you’ll find it. Does that sound okay?

Georgie: Yeah, that sounds great. And I just want to say, I think you’re already, you parents out there are just doing amazing. And just the fact that you’re listening to this podcast says a lot about you as a parent, too. So you should be proud of that. And there’s always an opportunity to do better. When we know better, we do better, and that’s what you’re doing by learning and growing through this podcast. So good job, parents.Lisa: Thank you, Georgie. Thank you for saying that.

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