Empathy: a tool for positive parenting

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Rob Charteris RMN, BSC (Hons), CBT Practitioner

Empathy: a tool for positive parenting


Empathy: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place.

When we put ourselves in someone elses’s place and imagine what they are thinking and feeling, we are using our powers of empathy. Empathy is a good thing, but as parents we often love our children so much that we can’t stand to see them hurt. This is natural, but not always helpful.

Imagine your child has a toothache and like all toothaches it’s painful. We would use empathy in this situation, imagining how much pain and discomfort our child is in, and consequently we would take them to the dentist.  Sometimes though our empathy goes awry and can be a hindrance to our judgment. Imagine if you were to think – “I can’t take my child to the dentist because they might pull the tooth out and that may cause them more pain”. This  would be using empathy in the wrong way, as If we don’t take our child to the dentist the pain may well get worse and eventually they may even get an infection. Our natural empathy must be balanced with sensible decisions.

Using empathy to understand your child’s behavior

Being able to imagine things from your child’s point of view can be very helpful when it comes to setting boundaries and dealing with their behavior. Imagine a scenario where your child is being naughty. Let’s say you are in a shopping centre and your child is crying and throwing a tantrum because you won’t buy them some sweets or a toy. Putting yourself in the child’s position you might think “Poor thing, they are really sad I should buy them a toy”.

That’s using empathy in a simple way and by thinking things through you will realize that this might lead to trouble.

Imagine for a minute you are the child who wants the toy. Children are adorable, sweet, funny and we love them, but they can be self centered. This is because they haven’t yet developed empathy. Children don’t truly develop empathy until their late teens and this is why they can seem selfish at times. Very little children often try to get whatever they want when they can, and it’s a parents job to establish the boundaries that they are unable to make for themselves.

If every time they cry or throw a tantrum they get what they want they are likely to think “When I cry I get what I want.”

This has been happening since they were babies. Think about it, they are hungry so they cry and voila! Milk arrives. That’s fine and necessary when they are a baby but less desirable as they get older.

In your child’s mind every time you respond to crying or screaming by giving them what they want you are just encouraging bad and demanding behavior. In the child’s mind the consequence of bad behavior is a reward.

Using empathy to put yourself in your child’s place when they misbehave and play events forward.

This involves a real understanding of your child’s world view and the ability to project forwards.

Imagine you are four year old child and your mummy says “Eat up all your dinner and then you can have some ice cream.” If you did not eat your dinner but you still got the ice cream because you cried and acted sad, what would you learn from this? What would you do next time? It seems likely that you would repeat the behavior and just cry every time you want something until you get it.

This is indeed what happens when parents fail to appreciate that they are rewarding bad behavior.

If however you cried and cried but still didn’t get ice cream, wouldn’t you give up crying in the end? Wouldn’t you perhaps eat your dinner nicely next time? You would be rewarded for your good behavior and it is likely to continue.

By putting ourselves in our child’s place and using empathy, we begin to see the best way of dealing with them in each and every situation. This is part of being a positive parent.

For more information on rewards and consequences please see our other articles.

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