Empathy and your child


Dear Adele,

How do we stop putting our own feelings onto our kids? When my 14-year-old son is left out and feels he has no friends, I feel heartbroken. I know that’s my own stuff. I want to help him but not put my own feelings onto him. Ideas, please!

The Empath


Dear Empath,

According to Becca Barody in ‘What is Empathy? Learn about 3 types of empathy’, empathy can be defined as “the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than your own.”

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman say there are three components of empathy. The cognitive component is the knowledge about how the other person thinks and feels. The emotional component is the sharing of the same emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, or joy. The compassionate component is the understanding feeling and inclination to assist if required.

Being connected to our children is one of the important facets of our experience as parents. The bonding starts in infancy, and good parents everywhere feel strongly about their children’s successes and failures. Your son is experiencing a social problem, and your stellar capacity for empathy is leaving you heartbroken and wondering what to do.

May I suggest you use your exceptional capacity for empathy to foster a deeper connection, to fire up, to motivate, to support, and to pilot your son through a common adolescent problem.

An article in Psychology Today by Dr. Shawn M. Burn entitled ‘Is Empathy Your Greatest Strength and Greatest Weakness? discusses the positives and negatives of being an empath. Empaths identify with others and can see things from their perspective. They are good listeners and good communicators. They are usually trusted and can “guide, influence, lead, inspire and motivate” others. Sometimes they take on the responsibility for others and act to help out. No doubt you have some of these characteristics and abilities.

The greatest weakness of the empath is that this characteristic can lead to rescuing behavior, occurring before what action to take is well thought out. It can lead to enabling behavior that supports poor achievement or irresponsibility in a child. Finally, it can lead to over-the-top self-sacrifice and make setting boundaries very challenging.

Perhaps you can see some of these characteristics, both strong and weak in yourself. I have a few ideas gathered from numerous sources on this subject, about how you can use your attribute Empath, for the benefit of your child while ensuring that you do not put your own feelings onto him.

  • Provide your son with support by listening actively. Use positive body language such as nodding, smiling, giving eye contact, and leaning forward. Restate your son’s problems and check if you got it right.
  • Acknowledge your son’s pain at being left out.
  • Validate your son’s feelings that the problem is difficult.
  • Share your feelings but focus predominately on those of your son.
  • Show gratitude that your son trusts you enough to share his feelings with you.
  • Show encouragement with statements like “You are resilient.”
  • Enhance the connection with your child by showing interest in what he has to share with you.
  • Recognize that your son’s emotions need to be healed before problem-solving can begin.
  • Be nonjudgmental about the varying perspectives on his problem.
  • Imagine yourself in your son’s shoes and try to see the social difficulty from his perspective.
  • Reframe the problem intellectually for yourself, without the emotional overlay.
  • Help your child look at solutions to the problem. Ask him to tell you when he feels he is ready to brainstorm problem solutions with you.

Using some of these ideas can be very powerful. They can help your communication with your offspring. They can help your boy feel that he is understood. They can help you and your boy increase your connectedness. They can strengthen your skills as a mother which will assist your child to mature through the teen years into an emotionally healthy and socially adept adult.

As for you Empath, try to avoid rescuing your child and feeling responsible for fixing his problems. Remember that life is full of problems and it is important that your son learn how to approach a problem, deal with it and gain competence and confidence in his ability to handle life’s challenges. Look at each problem as a learning opportunity.  

It is helpful to self-talk about boundaries too. Understand why they’re needed. Get support for enforcing your boundaries in the amount of help you give your boy. Develop assertiveness so you do not get taken advantage of. Eliminate thoughts that push you to be overly solicitous or too self-sacrificing.

Finally remember to treat yourself well, to empathize with yourself and to give yourself some compassion.

I will conclude my response today with three inspirational quotes about empathy:

Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the hearts of another.” — Alfred Adler

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself. — John Steinbeck

One friend, one person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider a problem, can change our whole outlook on the world.— E.H. Mayoli

I wish you the best with your teenager, Empath.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

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