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.’)

[irp posts=”1846″ name=”The Single Most Important Skill to Teach Your Child (by Miki Dedijer)”]


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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Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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