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.

Reply
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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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