What I Wish I Knew Then: Three lessons to ring in the new year - Part 3

Updated: Jan 18

Lesson #3 – Empathize, Don’t Antagonize


I don’t remember when, but sometime between getting married and the birth of my third child I became aware that my first reaction to problems was to go into ‘problem solving mode’.  Can any of you relate to this?  


What this looked like for me was:


I focussed more, buried my emotions, attacked the challenge with keen analysis, created a list of possible solutions, and then acted.  If more challenges came up, I just worked harder and kept moving.  That’s what a problem solver does, right?! 


After our son was born and the twins approached three, the challenges seemed to mount.  At that stage, my problem-solving approach wasn’t working out so well in parenting. How come my kids were so irrational?  Why couldn’t these toddlers see the logic in my solutions?  What caused them to get so upset when mom and dad’s limits made perfect sense?


We’d read about the toddler stage and done our homework.  We knew they were completely irrational and ruled by emotion. Unfortunately, I did not fully understand the emotional toll this took on me as a parent to properly respond during the toddler stage.  As a result, I found myself reacting way more than responding.  Never a good thing when dealing with twin toddlers (and yes, some days it literally felt impossible).


Enter the solution – Empathy.


We all know, or intuitively understand empathy.  It’s where you feel what someone else feels, understand their experience, relate to their perspective and accept it.  Simple, right?

For me, it was not.  In some situations, it was next to impossible for me to get to a place of empathy.  I simply could not relate to the completely irrational nature of these two little children. 


And that’s where the work began for me.  Because of my natural focus on problem solving, I was missing a big part of the equation: emotion.  My logical approach did not work, could not work.  This lesson was one of the hardest for me to learn but has been the sweetest reward since applied.  I am forever grateful for learning the value of empathizing.


According to Dr. Laura Markham, creator of AhaParenting.com and John Gottman, Author of Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child;


“Empathy is the foundation of emotional intelligence; it’s also the foundation of effective parenting… Why? Because it’s essential to your ability to understand your child and connect with her. Because it will prevent you from visiting on your child all the issues from your own childhood. And because without it, your child simply won’t feel loved, no matter how much you love her.”


Source: https://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/emotional-intelligence/emotional-health


I’m grateful because the ability to empathize has improved the connection with my children and partner.  I’m also more aware of my feelings and can (usually) self regulate even when my children are driving me crazy. 


The flip side to empathizing? 


Antagonizing.


How do I know? 


Because I used to unwittingly (and sometimes intentionally) antagonize my children in difficult moments.  I would problem solve, dismiss their feelings, tell them what to do and expect them to follow the logic or limit that was imposed.  Or, depending on the situation, I could pinpoint the problem they created and tell them it was their own fault.  


While I knew these choices made in the heat of the moment didn’t help, I still struggled.


I also saw the negative effects antagonizing created in my kids.  At its peak, they were disrespectful, disobedient, and downright defiant.  And that hurt on so many levels. Not exactly an effective approach to build healthy and strong relationships.


To summarize Dr. Laura Markham’s tips, here are three “how to’s” of demonstrating empathy.


1. Listen without the pressure to solve anything. Don’t take it personally. Stop, breathe….and detach from the situation and any expectations you have.


2. Acknowledge their feelings and reflect back what you hear or see in them. (see active

listening in last week’s post)

“It sounds like you’re pretty angry at your brother.” or

“It seems like you’re worried about the field trip today.”


3. Resonate. Try to feel what they feel and convey your understanding. Match your response to their mood in the situation.


If you’re still reading, I’d like to encourage you.  With all the mistakes I’ve made, this lesson of empathizing may be the most important because it has changed the dynamic in our home.  I believe it is primarily because of the message quoted above and explained here:

“When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened. A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality.” -HAIM GINOTT

Which of the three lessons resonated most for you?  I love hearing stories about how you get involved, plus we learn from each other in the process – so please let me know what you think in the comments.


If you found this series helpful, please like or share with someone you think could benefit.


Want to go deeper on the topic of Empathy?  Check out these resources:


Roots of Empathy – www.rootsofempathy.org

Dr. Laura Markham – www.ahaparenting.com

John Gottman, PhD. –  “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child”

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