Want your child to care? Start cultivating your empathy

Want your child to care? Start cultivating your empathy (by Miki Dedijer)

A mentor of mine once told me we don’t learn how to be more loving or empathetic. We’re naturally loving from birth.

The difference is small but significant.

We don’t have to strive to feel more or improve ourselves. This perspective is a cultural illness. It affects us when we internalize the industrial ideals of never-ending growth and linear progress.

Instead, we can become more skilled at revealing what’s been there all along.

Growing up, I shut down parts of my heart. There was the pain of broken relationships; the needs that went unmet as a child; stored grief for people and places that I lost connection with; the fear of being hurt or taken advantage of.

Most of us have areas of our hearts we haven’t visited for a long time. We change schools. We move homes. Our parents divorce. A loved one dies. Machines raze our favorite hideout in the woods. Few of us belong to a village that bears witness to the pains of these losses. Few of us have a community that helps us regain the trust we need to feel safe and welcome again.

And so in the absense of a empathic adults or a community to hold us, we abandon these challenged parts of ourselves. We don’t want to go there again. We don’t want to relive the pain or hurt. And so we close these inner catacombs and walk away.

Our work as adult men is to open those chambers again, to remove whatever blocks us from loving the way we were born to do.

[bctt tweet=”Our work as adult men is to remove whatever blocks us from loving the way we were born to do. ” via=”no”]

Learn to cultivate empathy.

That’s far easier said than done, I know. Much of my adult life has been about rediscovering these catacombs and opening them one by one. That’s not always easy. But the older I get, the more I consider it an adventure to rediscover my natural capacity for empathy.

And cultivating empathy is a vital role as a father.

We have so many other roles, of course. But being empathic with our children–and helping them grow their own capacity for empathy–has a huge impact on their development .

When we’re empathic our children can relax. There’s no reason for them to stress or be on high alert. They don’t have to defend themselves, run, hide, or fight. They feel they belong, that they have a home no matter what arises in them. In this environment, they develop the way nature intends them to.

That’s why cultivating our children’s empathy is a fundamental responsability as dads. We’re empathy farmers, to use a phrase by psychologist Robin Grille.

Our task is to create the best conditions we can to grow our children’s ability to relate to people, nature and all sentient beings.

Every now and then we might lose our cool, yell, throw a menacing look or otherwise frighten our child with our power and authority. We soon sense the muteness of disconnection. And most of us regret it afterwards, and wish we’d done it in a different way.

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When our wounds get in the way.

The hard truth is that sometimes we don’t want our children’s feelings to touch us. We’re too exhausted, on edge, incapacitated or triggered for some reason.

In those moments, empathy hurts us too much. We’d much rather turn away than stay with.

Our child’s behavior sometimes touches on our original hurts, the ones we’ve locked away. Every time our child takes us there, she reminds us of our unresolved pain.

It’s not that we’re insensitive, crude, monstrous or incapable of responding with soft attention and compassionate curiosity. We are all biologically capable of responding with love towards our child or our partner. But sometimes our automatic defensive reactions blocks our hearts.

It’s not that we are mean. We’re wounded.

So instead of facing our child, we evade her. We keep her a good distance from our pressure points. We block out our capacity for empathy and isolate ourselves from our child. And instead of healing ourselves, we pass on our hurts.

Notice how you block your empathy.

When we block our empathic responses, we in effect censor our children’s emotions. To avoid engaging with our child’s feelings, we manipulate, dominate, control, belittle, opress or otherwise block the behavior. And we create a distance in the family.

”Empathy blockers save us the trouble of listening, but they cost us our connection with each other,” says Robin Grille. They frustrate our child, and with time create detachment, distance and mistrust.

These are some examples of empathy blockers from his wonderful book Heart-to-Heart Parenting.

  • Downplaying – Oh, don’t cry. I’m sure it’s not that bad! It’s not the end of the world.
  • Denial – There is nothing wrong; nothing for you to be upset about. Everything is OK.
  • Reasoning – Don’t cry. Can’t you see that the other child didn’t mean to hurt you
  • The positive spin – Look on the bright side. Can’t you see, this probably happened for a good reason?
  • Cheering up – Don’t worry. Here, let me tell you something funny I heard the other day. Here, have an ice cream. That’ll cheer you up.
  • Advising/giving options – Why don’t you try doing this, or that? I think you should just ignore that so-and-so.
  • The expectation – You should have known better. Get over it. Don’t let it get to you.
  • Put down – Don’t be silly. Don’t be ridiculous.
  • Diagnosing/labelling – You are being over-sensitive.
  • Distracting/diverting – Hey, have a look at the pretty puppet.
  • Stealing the thunder – Now you know how I felt when the same thing happened to me.

Listen with your heart.

If you recognize any of these behaviors, chances are you’re human.

And that means you can learn to remove the blocks by owning your reaction and healing your hurts.

This might mean getting some rest, reaching out to a friend a therapist or a coach for support, or finding some space to decompress.

The practice is continuously to develop your ability to listen with genuine interest in your child’s emotional world.

When you do, your child learns that all her feelings are valid. Anger, fear, sadness, shame or joy are all welcome.

“Listening,” says Grille, “is at the heart of connection, and if we can’t listen well, we cease to be an influence in our children’s lives.”

(See here for Miki’s free ebook for depleted dads: ‘7 Steps to a Lot More Energy As a Dad.’)

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About the Author: Miki Dedijer

Miki DedijerMiki Dedijer supports conscious fathers in managing their emotional health and rooting their children in community. Miki hosts The Lodge for Natural Dads, an online gathering of committed dads of young children. You can now reserve your place as a lodge member. Sign up for news about Miki’s workshops, and receive his blogs and updates through his website, naturaldads.com, or join a growing community of dads on Facebook. Miki also offers ‘7 Steps to a Lot More Energy As a Dad.’ a free ebook for depleted dads.

5 Comments

Wendolyn

applies to our election cycle too… many people who feel secure following the election are using these empathy blockers which prevent conversation, healing, or greater understanding from both “sides.” I think many of the protests are cries for others to really listen, really see the emotional realities that the protesters are facing.

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Miki

Hey Wendolyn–I love that you connect empathic parenting and emotion blockers with the recent election in the United States.

Our children are watching, sensing, feeling how us adults are in the world, and how we respond to the world. The energy of the election has rippled through many families (even beyond the United States).

How we respond to the other, how we view and approach our differences, teaches our children a lot about empathy, and our willingness to listen, even if it is painful.

I imagine there are a lot of correlations between how we practice empathy at home, and how it shows up in politics and shapes society.

Robin Grille is really clear that reforms in child-rearing directly affects democratic processes, peace and social stability. He calls this parenting for a peaceful world.

Thank you again for making the connection!

Miki

Reply
Miki

Hey Howard–Glad you liked it. Yes, I agree with you, it is easy to get distracted. That is I believe why First Nations Peoples don’t see themselves as raising children, but reminding children of their original nature again and again, their generosity, their gifts and their love. When we live in a culture that allows us to forget that, we are denatured. Warmest, Miki

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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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