Friday, December 18, 2015

Building Empathy and Support When Your Child is Sad

We like to think of childhood as a happy time, a time when our sons and daughters are peaceful, free of stress and enjoying life.  Of course there are always those situations when our children are hurt, lonely, angry or any of the other human emotions.  It is during these times we tell them "Oh, it's not that bad." or "Don't cry." or "You'll get over it."  We mean well and think these statements will help console our sad boy or girl.  Unfortunately, the result is most often the opposite of what we intend.  So how do we go about helping?

First and always we must show the child that we understand and recognize how they are feeling.  For example, if a child is crying, rather than ask "Why are you crying?" try saying, "You look sad (or upset, or angry).  If the response is "I'm not sad" it is important not to argue, but just to say something like "I hope you feel better soon.  If you want to tell me about it I will listen."  Sometimes the child just needs a little time to process what is going on.  

Some phrases that work:
  • Wow.  You seem angry.
  • That is a sad face.
  • You look like you are disappointed
  • It seems your feelings might be hurt
  • Oh gosh.  You are crying. 
Notice we never tell the child how they are feeling, only how it appears to us.  It is very important for the child to recognize and express their own feelings when they are ready.  

Once the child calms down we can offer help.  Again it is important not to give directions.  One way that often works is to say "I know some things that have helped other children.: If you want to hear them, let me know."  or "I have a few ideas when you are ready to hear them."  This helps the child feel in control of herself and the situation.  

If the child has made a mistake or broken a rule it is still important to show understanding before the consequences take place.  We can say things such as "Oh how sad.  Being out in the rain ruined your bike."  or "Uh oh.  Your sister took back her books.  It is sad that the pages got torn."

Showing understanding and empathy does not mean that we approve of the behavior, only that we understand the feelings and situation.  When we show empathy the child feels understood and loved and is more ready to face the consequences of her actions or to find a solution to her unhappiness. 

Although these ideas may seem strange to those of us who were parented differently, they do work and help the children to gain a true sense of responsibility and self worth.  

Please post comments and questions if you wish or share your experiences.