Much of my “educational method” is based on teaching empathy to my children through my example.
Empathy is something I had to learn myself in order to use it with my children - especially during crisis (the so-called “tantrums”), when they seems to cry for nothing, when I don't understand them, when it feels like they’re challenging me…
Those are the times when, if I show empathy, they learn it. They learn it for the next time, for when they argue with their siblings, for when a friend .
If I am not a parent who learns to be a parent, I cannot expect my children to be people who learn to be people.
How I show empathy
Here are some of my favorite ways to model empathy for my kids, especially in a moment of crisis (when they cry, yell or hit):
Silence and breathe: sometimes just stopping, offering our presence and keeping our breathing calm is enough. If they let me hug them, I hold them and slow down my breathing: my calm is their calm.
A gentle touch: touch their arm, back or hand. Sometimes, our physical presence communicates beyond our words. Also, I try to use as few words as possible when your child is struggling: if I notice I'm talking too much and telling them off, I stop and say, "We can talk about it later, would you like a hug now?".
Listen actively: sometimes kids don’t need our words, they need us to listen to theirs. A good way to start is, "I hear you", "I understand you", even if you don't.
Make sounds: sometimes a simple sound like “Oh”, “Mmm”, “Ah-ha” lets our kids know that we are listening and that we "get it”. It also helps to take time while we think what words to use.
"Tell me more about that": when they're calm enough to talk, showing interest in your child’s words speaks volume. It means “I’m interested, I’m listening, I care, I love you”. "What did you do?" might start the conversation with the assumption that the child caused their own emotion. "What happened?" might lead to a conversation the child is not ready yet to have. "Tell me more" is neutral, the child is in control of the conversation.
Describe their emotion: by naming the emotion, you help your child understand what they’re feeling. “That sounds _____ [overwhelming, disappointing, frustrating, sad, scary]”. It also encourages them to think about their feelings (They might say, “No, I'm not *angry*. I’m *sad*”) which engages the reasoning part of the brain and helps them calm down. When you name the emotion, you're more likely to tame it.
Be your child’s “interpreter”: translate their emotions and reactions. “You didn't want to [hurt your sister; spill water; hit the child]. You were trying to… [play with your sister, but instead you pushed her; pour water in the glass, but instead you poured it on the table; take your toy back from the child who took it from you]”. BUT I don't justify the behaviour, I understan it, and welcome the feeling before talking about the behaviour.
Observe: reflect on the cause. What caused the crisis? When I understand it, I can usually "help" my chidlren more efficiently. Observation is a powerful tool when it comes to parenting.
What I (try to) avoid
- I don't generalize: try to avoid using adverbs like "never" and "always". ❌ "You are always the same", "You never tidy up".
I don't threaten: try to avoid talking about the future, stay in the present. ❌ "If you don't help tidy up, Oliver won't want to play with you next time".
I don't raise my voice: there are little things in our brain called mirror neurons, which reflect other people's emotion. If you're angry, guess what emotion your child will reflect back.
If I do any of the above, I usually understand it very quickly, because instead of calming the crisis, I make it worse. The crying increases. The screaming intensifies. My kids throw themselves onto the floor.
I take a deep breath (two, maybe), and then I use one of the methods listed above to show empathy, give control back to the rational part of the brain, and connect again with my children.