Raising Children With Empathy... Why It's Much Harder Than We Think

With some reluctance, I bought my son a mobile phone for his tenth birthday recently. I don’t like the ease at which he can access a screen, but it’s helping his independence and, I confess, allowing me a bit more freedom myself.

So while I was at a friend’s house last week he was able to call me, and he did because I wasn’t home ‘on time’.
My friend was touched that he was worried about me, but what I saw is the sign of the times.

Even the most self-assured kids are far more prone to anxieties than they deserve to be; mistrust in the world, lack of faith in their ability to cope or adjust to change have become an epidemic; I just read that school-based anxiety has taken 17% of students out of secondary school in Northern Ireland.

And I get really frustrated when the ‘solution’ being peddled is the threat of fines; it’s a sticking-plaster approach (and an inhumane one) that’s not at all interested in why so many children exist in a chronic state of unease.

Whatever and wherever a child is struggling to feel confident in their world, the missing ingredients are usually acceptance and empathy, because these – what I refer to as ‘A&E’ – are game-changers.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being empathic and accepting, but the truth is that it’s second nature for all of us to some extent to fail at it.
Honestly, how accepting are we when someone cuts us up in the traffic or jumps the queue? How readily do we form an opinion about a person’s terrible dress sense, he who constantly interrupts or she who always drinks too much as the staff Christmas party?

And it’s this propensity to see the situation through our own lens and not the other person’s – to value our version of what’s acceptable and what isn’t -which can get in the way of understanding and supporting our child when, whether we accept it or not, they’re in distress.

All of us know a fellow human who is fluent in non-acceptance, in not understanding, and not actually wanting to understand the emotional world of another. And sometimes, if we look closely, we might recognise that quality in ourselves as well.

Because the reality is that ‘A&E’ is far easier in theory than in practice, especially when the child in front of us doesn’t have the capacity to see the world through our sense-making eyes; I live and breathe this stuff, but on plenty of occasions I’ve accused my son of being ridiculous, making a mountain out of a molehill, or expecting too much of me.

When it’s logical and well-intended, judgement comes especially easily. But the fact remains that, whether a person is a child or adult, NOBODY feels safe being judged, regardless of whether it’s the intention or not.
Nor will ANYBODY change what they think and feel, just because someone tells them to.

We don’t have to accept our child’s attitude or behaviour to accept their experience.
But what happens when we are willing to suspend our own version of events and connect with their reality?
Do you remember what changed for you the last time when – instead of being judged or dismissed – you felt seen and heard, that your truth was your truth, and it mattered?

Nothing changes if nothing changes, and our kids can’t just change to fit the needs of their grown-ups. That’s not how brains work.
Whether it’s our kids’ thoughts or decisions, actions or attitudes, behaviours or beliefs, these things are always a by-product of brain activity, so changing any of them means changing what’s happening inside their heads first.

Acceptance and Empathy always works in favour of their brain. So, whether they’re at home, at school, or anywhere else, resist problem-solving or perspective, rationalising or minimising as your first port of call.
Insist on making them FEEL emotionally safe and connected. See what changes then.

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