Topic 4 Communicating with Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand someone’s emotions and viewpoint. It doesn’t necessarily means that you agree with or adopt their emotions and points of view. When practicing empathy with children and adolescents, they feel that they are being heard by others, understood and supported. Adults should avoid labelling the child’s emotions as “right” or “wrong”, rush into conclusions or immediately react to what they see or hear. Instead, it is important to acknowledge that children’s reactions or emotions are deeply connected to their needs which they strive to communicate, and they are not inherent to the child’s personality. Youth can feel more connected to the adults that show empathy to them and it provides with the sense of safety to communicate what they feel and think.

There are four key elements in showing empathy:

  1. Putting aside someone’s emotions and thoughts and try to understand the child’s perspective.
  2. Letting go of drawing quick conclusions and being judgmental.
  3. Trying to understand what the child is feeling. Remember a time when you might have felt the same way.
  4. Offering reflection and show that you are trying to understand what they are going through without rushing through fixing their problem, for example by saying “it feels to me that you are feeling scared/disappointed, etc.”

First of all, in order to show empathy to youth, adults should learn how to be empathetic to themselves.

  • Offer yourself a time-out – When things get challenging and a conflict is present between you and a young person, instead of immediately lose your temper and even yell at them, take a break. Welcome all the emotions that you currently experience. Even negative emotions are welcomed, but rather reacting to them try to say something comforting, instead. This can be anything that makes you feel better, for example: “You are not a bad person” or “Everyone can learn from their mistakes”.
  • Do not try to find a solution immediately – rather take the time to think about and acknowledge why the child’s behavior makes you so upset. What are your values, and how the child’s’ behavior is against your own values. How these values were created and how you can learn new ways to manage your emotions when they are overlooked.
  • Accept the child for who they are, even if they are quite different from you. When children are accepted by adults it is more possible to feel that they are valued and understood as independent people and thus, create a strong and trusting relationship with them.
  • Accept your own emotions – understand that even negative emotions are part of a human relationship and being a parent or teachers is a challenging role. If you embrace all emotions, you will easier earn how to manage them.

Try using these phrases when talking to them:

  • I understand what you are saying
  • It must be difficult to feel that way
  • I understand that what you experience is challenging to you
  • I appreciate that you shared that with me
  • How did that make you feel?
  • I understand that it’s difficult for you to share that with me. Thank you for showing trust to me.
  • I have been through this difficult situation myself
  • I can see why you feel so annoyed
  • I support you and what you have decided to do
  • Tell me what I can do to help you
  • Try to communicate that you have noticed your tense relationship and express your feelings. Even though they might get annoyed or disagree, stay focused in explaining how you feel and don’t get distracted by their response. Try using a phrase like: “I notice that we have many conflicts recently. I feel sad about that and I want to try and build with you a more calm and strong relationship.”
  • Acknowledge your responsibility to the situation and avoid focusing on the child’s behavior. Try saying something like: “I’ve been really tired lately and I tend to lose my temper more easily. I will try to find ways to destress and talk to you in a calmer way.”
  • Try to find ways to spend time together, by doing something that you both enjoy. If the child continues to decline don’t force it to them, rather assert them that you will be there if they want to spend time with you and continue looking for opportunities for quality time with them.
  • Try and act in a different, more empathetic way. Replace a negative reaction with a more positive one. Although it can take time to establish a new communication pattern with them, acknowledge that you will keep trying to make things better.
  • Understand that your efforts will take time to make a difference. Your child might question your intentions and wonder if you are going to be consistent. Some days it may seems that there is no progress but have in mind that your efforts will pay of eventually.
  • If things do not seem to improve or other serious problems exists, i.e. abuse, addiction or mental health issues, then don’t be afraid to ask the help of a health professional. Acquiring the help of a health professional will guide you through the efforts to communicate in a more effective manner and establish a healthy relationship.
  • There is a chance that the relationship might remain distant, despite the numerous efforts. Give yourself time to grieve the change of the relationship and connect with other parents or teachers that go through the same situation.
  • The change of the relationship towards a more strong one is not usually linear. Sometimes it might seems that you take some steps back, and that is ok. Don’t strive for perfection, rather try to acknowledge and celebrate the little wins that you have accomplished.