Leah Koenig, MA, LMHC
Parent Coach ~ Family Therapist

Bellevue Family Counseling, LLC
1601 116th Ave NE, Ste. 102
Bellevue, WA  98004
 How to raise your child's self concept through empathy

Raise Your Child’s Self Concept with Empathy

by Leah Koenig MA, LMHC
PCI Certified Parent Coach
® & Family Therapist

Nine year old John has spent too much time watching morning cartoons and now is rushing to get himself out the door for school.  When he opens his backpack to put his lunch in, he sees his homework and realizes that he forgot to do it last night.  He starts getting red in the face and slams his backpack onto the ground.  As parents do we. . .

  1. Calmly inform John that if he spent less time watching television and more time getting himself organized he wouldn’t be in this situation.

  2. Inform John that from now on he has to show you his back pack each day so you can check for homework.

  3. Send a note to the teacher apologizing for both yours and John’s disorganization and assure the teacher that he will do the homework that night.

  4. With a sad face express to John that you see how frustrated he is; that it must feel so maddening to forget, and then touch his shoulder softly and wish him a better day.

Like Our Parents

If you are like most parents, me included, lecturing our kids as in option one is probably pulling at you pretty hard.  Our intentions are good; we want to lecture our children and point out their failing so they can improve.  This is just critical feedback, right?  I am sad to say this scenario was mine just last year and I too opted to lecture him about time management and proper preparation for one’s day.  Do you think he said this?  “Gee mom, that is such a logical explanation. You’re right; I really will stop watching cartoons and spend more time organizing my day.”   No.  What I got was my son’s anger at himself redirected and shot back at me. Kapow!  Lecturing often leaves us feeling criticized and no one likes that.

Options two and three are really about rescuing our child from the consequences of his actions.  Setting a new rule robs him of the chance to solve a problem he is capable of solving himself and experience the boost in self concept that comes along with solving problems.  Number three is being a rescuer and again, robs our child of the consequences that create learning.  These first three options are right at the tips of our brain because it happened to us over and over again when we were growing up.

The Magic of Empathy

Some of us were fortunate enough to get empathy. If we use empathy with our children, as in option four, several things occur.  Firstly, we get to stay in the role of the “good guy.”  The moment we shift to lectures, threats, warnings, and reminders, they want to resist us with every fiber of their being and be mad at us.  Human beings do not like to be told what to do, especially little kids who are growing into their independence.  When we use empathy, we join them in their lament and they feel accepted, understood, important, and close.

Another wonderful thing happens when are sad with our child about their predicament: the problem stays on their shoulders.  When this happens, they have a chance to come to the conclusion of, “This sucks.  I don’t want to do feel like this again!  I guess I better do it differently next time.”  Imagine your child taking on his or her own problems.  Imagine their self concept soaring with confidence. That cannot happen unless we let them keep their own problems.

When we model empathy with them when they are little they learn to use it with us and others in return.  Empathy is a skill critical to sound moral and emotional development. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others and, at least to some degree, feel what they feel and then to respond in helpful ways.  To be empathetic, simply imagine what your child might be feeling in a moment and name it for them in a compassionate voice.  “You must be feeling really sad right now.”  Easy!  What one more argument about modeling empathy for your children?  Would you like it if your spouse or partner was more empathetic? 

The Aliens Have Landed

When you switch to using empathy, your child might be confused as to why you are skipping the lecture.  They’ll be thinking, “Who are you and what did you do with my parents?” They may try to draw you into a little fight because that is the familiar routine.  Pulling you into what feels normal is an effort to dump their emotions on you, making you the “bad guy”, because they are used to doing that.  If this happens, and now you know to expect this response, once again just use empathy by labeling the emotion you see with a compassionate voice. Children lack experience of identifying, labeling, and managing their feelings. When you as a parent help your child name what they feel inside, they can more easily make sense of their emotional world.  Wrapping all this in empathy makes it safe for your child to express his truer feelings not just the surface feeling of anger.

Empathy Builds Trust

Finally, when you use empathy with your child, they learn that they can make a mistake and you will be there for them with love and compassion.  Nothing is worse than making a mistake, feeling badly and then having to endure a lecture with the sting of criticism mixed in.  Often new rules or controls take away our children’s autonomy.   Instead you are building a foundation of trust where your child will believe they can bring the good and bad of life to you and they will be met compassionately not critically.  Ask yourself:  can my child bring to me moments that they are feeling fragile or are potentially embarrassing?  Am I that safe to him or her?  As they get older, this becomes more important.  Just imagine them coming to you when they have a serious problem as teenager, when consequences for bad decisions can be far more serious.