Thoughtful Parenting: The art of empathy

Chris Young/For the Steamboat Today

In order to encourage healthy emotional development and regulation from the very beginning of a child’s life (some would say from the time conception is recognized), the child’s caregiver needs to be attuned to the child.

In child development language, to be attuned means to be in harmony and compassion with the child. Attunement allows the caregiver to know and respond to the child’s emotional state. Some caregivers are so attuned that they can tell from a child’s cry whether he or she is hungry, tired, needs a diaper change or is sick.

By being attuned to the child, the caregiver provides a model to the child for the early development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. When we are empathically heard and understood, we are more apt to feel accepted as who we are.

Being empathic with a child in full-blown tantrum mode or in meltdown is more than challenging. It requires that we set aside our self-consciousness, our own wants and schedule and be in harmony with the child.

Easier said than done, but here are examples of exchanges between caregiver and child that don’t and do show empathy.

Child: (screaming, flailing, red in the face)

Caregiver: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know we have to leave now?”

Child: (screaming, flailing, red in the face)

Caregiver: “Boy, you’re really mad and letting me know.”

Clearly we are not robots and do have our own emotional reactions to our children’s behavior. However, the more frequently we can step back, take a breath and calm ourselves before reacting to our child’s disruptive behavior, the more likely we are to respond in an empathic manner.

Our empathic responses show our children how they eventually can have empathy for themselves and others.

Infants in nurseries will cry in response to another infant’s crying. Two-year-olds will offer a snuggle bear to a distressed sibling or parent. These are early signs of empathy.

When a child is about 5 years old, teaching how other people feel can be started. However, the most powerful teaching tool is our own empathic behavior toward our child.

Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist specializing in children and families is a partner of Routt County’s Early Childhood Council and First Impressions of Routt County.

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