I love many things about my job; one of the biggest things I love is that I get to work with a lot of teenagers and young people. It’s a challenge sometimes because young people often hold huge feelings in small bodies that have not yet fully matured, physically, or emotionally. The recent pandemic, school closings, and political turmoil have definitely caused an uptick in my client load. More and more families are coming in with anxious and depressed kids who have stopped taking interest in things they used to love. I’ve seen several clients whose typically A-students have lost all interest in school and have straight-up stopped trying. No doubt this is troubling, and parents are rightfully concerned. The usual playbook includes restricting privileges, punishment, threats, screams, and tears. Although well-intended, these reactions are rarely useful to connect with kids that are spiraling out. What kids in distress need first is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, which is an incredibly powerful tool to connect with another human being. Young people are emotionally driven. When life is out of balance, it shows up in ways that can look like destructive behavior. When parents see grades drop, or their children isolating, lashing out, or stop engaging with them, the natural tendency is to respond with frustration or anger. As a parent, I get it. We all want our children to thrive, and when they aren’t we become afraid for their future. Fear comes out as anger or a heavy-handed approach to ‘straighten them out’. There is a need, place, and time for discipline so that our children are trained up in the way that they should go (Proverbs 22:6); however, discipline shouldn’t come at the expense of empathy.
It may be hard to grasp what empathy really means. In the simplest of terms, empathy means allowing your child the chance to share what is going on in their world without judgment, or the knee-jerk reaction to ‘fix’ the problem. This alone can be hard for parents who instinctively want to make things better. Think about your own tough times. How did you feel about people who were quick to offer a variety of solutions? Although guidance may be welcome (and needed), did you feel that you were given the space to be truly heard and understood first? If not, perhaps you missed feeling validated, and all their good ideas didn’t help because what you really needed, to begin with, was the chance to process how you felt. It’s the same with our kids. They are emotional creatures who inherently avoid being vulnerable to others. The key to getting our kids to open up is to first create an atmosphere of safety that they can share how they feel, and be listened to without reprisal.
Empathy means listening to seek understanding so that you can put yourself in their shoes. What it does not mean is pity, or a free pass to continue bad behavior. You do not have to agree with your child in order to be empathetic. As well, simply listening to them does not imply that you condone their choices or behavior. There is a reason why kids are anxious, depressed, or running off the rails. Something is emotionally out of balance that needs to be resolved. Punishments or threats may get them to toe the line, for a while, but it won’t get to the root of what’s wrong. In a culture that celebrates performance, children will often rebel if they believe that the only thing that matters at home is what grade or award they earn, and if the chores are done. Children are best emotionally adjusted when they are validated for who they are, and not by what they do. Pursuing our children with genuine interest and empathy teaches them that we care about who they are and what’s going on inside.
A great mentor of mine always reminds me to lead with empathy. No one appreciates advice when there is no effort to truly understand the problem. I put this in to play recently with my own child. He had a bad day and was frustrated. I was very tempted to say “well most of the day was good so cheer up!” Not helpful. The ‘turn that frown upside down’ approach is wonderfully positive, but also unintentionally invalidating. By leading with empathy, I instead listened and commented that it did seem frustrating. This opened the door for him to talk more, and within about 10 minutes he had worked through it. I have found that beginning with empathy always creates connection, and allows the conversation to go deeper. After all, at our core, we want to be understood.
I believe there is no harder job than being a parent. Being responsible for our kids is inherently at odds with watching them become their own person. They are unique individuals with their own thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that they can choose to share with us, or not. Empathy builds a bridge to connect with our kids so that they come to trust our guidance and recognize that we truly are on their team.