Parent / Child Relationships

As a child therapist, one of the most common complaints I hear from parents is, “My child won’t talk to me.” Feeling estranged from your own child is painful, and it also has implications for the child. Research indicates the clearest predictor of a child's emotional and psychological stability is the closeness of the parent/child relationship. Obviously, if the child is not opening up to their parent, the closeness has been lost.

There are 2 habits that parents routinely engage in that shutdown communication and drive a child away: negating feelings and mistaking sympathy for empathy.

1) Negating Feelings: Do not respond in a manner that negates or dismisses your child’s feelings. For example, avoid phrases like:

  • Don't worry
  • Don't feel that way
  • Don't be disappointed
  • Don't be like that
  • Don't be mad
  • You are too sensitive
  • You are too emotional

When a child is truly in distress because they feel hurt, disappointed, worried, or angry, they desperately need their parent. Yet, often, parents don't want to see their child feeling negative, so their first instinct is to tell their child not to feel the way they do. Before they think, statements such as, “don’t be disappointed” or “don't be mad” escape. This results in the child feeling ashamed of how they feel, compounding the hurt. Even more detrimental is the knowledge that their parent does not understand, which leaves them feeling alone. Basically, they learn to not to open up.

A better idea is to empathize. Honor their feeling. Feelings are never wrong, it's what we do with feelings that can get us in trouble. Examples of empathy include:

  • That's a big worry. I get it.
  • You are upset. I would be too.
  • You have every right to feel disappointed. I felt like that too when I was your age.
  • You are mad. I understand. You have every right.
  • You are hurt and confused. It's hard. I'm here.

After you give them a solid dose of empathy, the child feels understood and connected to you, which means they immediately feel better, and will want your help in problem-solving. In many cases, the empathy is all they need to feel better. Simply knowing their parent understands, allows them to feel secure and forge ahead.

Here's how it works: Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child's brain and immediately calms them. After the empathy, they settle down and can logically think through problems with you. They also feel understood and close to you which allows them to forge ahead with a sense of security.

No parent wants a child that feels sorry for themselves, plays the victim, or is overdramatic, and maybe that is the fear that prevents a parent from being empathic, however, honoring their child’s feelings is actually what prevents a sense of entitlement or a victim mentality in a child. Sympathy, on the other hand, disrupts any chance of emotional attunement and tempts parents to enable.

2) Mistaking sympathy for empathy.

Perhaps the most detrimental error a parent can make is confusing sympathy with empathy. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for your child, instill a sense of entitlement in your child and teaches them to play the victim to get what they want and excuse themselves from accountability.

Let's use an example. On the way home from tennis practice one night, Mary, my 8-year-old daughter, said to me, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I was the first one out every time. I'm the worst one every night.”

Now, I have 2 choices, the sympathetic response or the empathic response.

1)The sympathetic response: “You poor thing! I'm going to call your coach and talk to him. I don't think it's fair that you sit out a lot.”

2) The empathic response: “That hurts, kiddo. It hurts to feel like you’re the worst one. I get it. I've felt like that a lot in my life. It stinks. Keep at it, honey. It will get better.”

The sympathetic response, tempts a parent to enable and ask that the rules be changed or concessions be made for the child. This teaches the child to play the victim. Also, it requires zero emotional investment from the parent because the parent is the powerful rescuer, which strokes the parent’s ego. It is the easy way out.

The empathic response requires the parent shift from how they feel, to how the child feels. It's emotional attunement. It's the parent remembering how it feels to be the worst one at something, so they can relate to their child. It's selfless and it puts the child first, emotionally. When there is emotional attunement, the child feels understood, and connected to the parent, which allows them to feel secure and able to forge ahead and try again. Empathy creates a rugged work ethic and resilience in a child. The child will thrive on adversity instead of breaking down when negative things happen. Empathy creates brave and strong human beings.

Stay close to your child. Empathize and empower. The reward will be priceless. Love and love well, Dr Erin Leonard

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