Empathy — The Key to Successful Parenting

teen-daughter-momEmpathy is the most important parenting skill. Empathy can be thought of as connection or attunement, sensing what our child is feeling and experiencing and being present with them.

Marshall Rosenberg, founder of The Center for Non-Violent Communication, describes empathy as a respectful understanding of what our child is experiencing. Empathy enriches the feeling of connection between parent and child by sensing what our child is feeling and experiencing and being present with them.

Empathy occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments. That is the hardest part about empathy. Preconceived ideas and judgments about our children make it difficult for us to be genuinely present with our child’s experience and understand their point of view. Once we shed our preconceived ideas and judgments, we are able to focus full attention on our child’s message and be totally and genuinely present with them. That is empathy!

Daniel Siegel, MD, says empathy allows the child to “feel felt, to feel that she exists within the mind of the parent.” If parents are looking for one book to help them connect empathically with their child, I would recommend The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.

In the classic parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, they caution that our attitude is crucial. If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by our child as phony or manipulative. They suggest we resist the temptation to give advice and instead stay with accepting feelings, focusing on recognizing what they are feeling. They remind us that the more we try to push our child’s unhappy feelings away, the more our child will become stuck in them; whereas, the more comfortably we are able to accept their bad feelings, the easier it will be for them to let go of them.

No matter how many parenting strategies and tools you learn, if they are applied without empathy, they won’t work. For help in learning about empathy and parenting skills, for parents of all age kids, join one of my parenting classes in Boulder, CO.