Empathy

Friday 28 Feb

Much has been written about the so-called empathy crisis. Many believe that our children are growing up to be less caring and compassionate than previous generations.

This is not my experience of children at Living Faith.

I have the privilege of working alongside large numbers of children every day and, more often than not, what I see is the opposite. I see a generation that exudes an empathy not seen in my own generation. These young children know that interfering or fixing other people’s problems is not the answer. While they may not have the experience of older generations, these children demonstrate a remarkable ability to identify with the joys and the pains of those around them. With authentic hearts, they celebrate with their peers in times of triumph and they sit in the pit of despair with them in times of dejection. They know when to speak words of comfort, support and understanding, and they know when silence is the strongest response. Our students’ ability to choose wisdom over judgement is nothing short of inspiring. We can learn a lot from our children.

Brené Brown writes, ‘Empathy is not connecting to an experience, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.’ She says that empathy is easily confused with sympathy, giving advice, and judgement disguised as concern.

Adults often respond to children with sympathy. Sympathy dismisses feelings and rarely assists a child in growing through a situation. A sympathetic response can be demanding and condescending to the child, and can be grinding and taxing for us, the adults delivering it. An empathetic response to a child can not only benefit the child’s emotional development, but can also be calming and more manageable for adults.

Janet Lansbury encourages adults to show empathy through the simple phrase, ‘Let feelings be’. She writes:

Accept tantrums, meltdowns, whines, neediness, disappointments, sadness, major and minor complaints without judgment. Our children’s feelings and desires are involuntary and do not belong to us. Managing, calming, or otherwise “fixing” them is not our responsibility, nor is it helpful to them.

So, rather than trying to respond “properly” and risk becoming affected by our children’s moods, focus on letting feelings be. Our children’s emotional expressions (no matter how unreasonable, ridiculous or unfair they might seem) need to be okay with us as is, for as long as they last. Our acceptance is what allows them to be expressed in a healthy manner.

  • When your daughter can’t stand her little brother, let her feelings be. Acknowledge, “He’s bugging you right now.”
  • When your son doesn’t want to play with the other kids on the playground, let his feelings be. Assure him, “You can sit with me for as long as you like.”
  • When your child is upset because the sun disappeared behind a cloud, let her feelings be. “You wanted the sun to keep shining.”

When we let feelings be, we let go of reacting and, instead, stay anchored, accepting ups and downs, letting life flow.

Remember that our reasonable limits don’t cause our children’s feelings, but rather provide children the opportunity to release feelings that are already there. Trust this process.

… When we let these feelings be we connect deeply with our children and encourage them to process emotions, build confidence and resilience.Lansbury’s recommended books, podcasts and articles offer sound advice to support the emotional growth of children, while maintaining the sanity of adults. I commend her work to you.

- Jane Mueller, Principal