All of the child and family therapists in Denver agree: Empathy is an incredible effective tool in relationships. Empathy is positive, it’s free, and it can be used in any setting. It’s defined as the ability to identify with and understand the experiences and feelings of others. For example, a friend may say they’re having marital difficulty and they’ve been arguing with their partner a lot. To respond empathetically would be: “I’m sorry. That must be really stressful. I know how important your marriage is to you.” Empathetic responses help others feel understood. A simple verbal response can nurture others during difficult moments or periods in their lives. It usually isn’t necessary for someone else to share the same feelings (which would be the definition of sympathy). A co-worker might not expect or need anyone else in the office to feel sad when they’re grieving the death of a loved one. It’s powerful enough to have others recognize the loss and simply acknowledge that it’s a difficult experience. It’s not uncommon for men to struggle with providing empathy. They’re often raised to become problem-solvers. When they see their partner in emotional distress they believe it’s their role as a loving male to find a way to “fix” the situation. This often leaves them feeling frustrated and wondering if they’ve failed as many situations are not easily fixed or cannot be remedied at all. Although their hearts are in the right place, their sense of failure is unnecessary. What their partner most likely needs is a little empathy, which is so much easier to provide than a solution. For example, the mother who comes home mortified by the temper tantrum her toddler threw at the store that day may not need her partner to try to resolve the issue by trying to convince the child to never behave that way again. What she might need most is to hear, “It sounds like you had a really rough day. You must have felt so embarrassed when that clerk stopped and stared at you. It sounds like you did the best you could.” In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, renowned psychologist John Gottman, PhD explains that parents often fail to empathize with their children because they’re preoccupied with the end result. When a young child cries and resists when told it’s time for bed, empathy can powerfully show the child that the parent understands and cares. “You were having so much fun playing. I bet you must be disappointed that it’s bedtime. I’m sorry we don’t have more time to play today. Can you and I play that game again tomorrow?” (This model is equally effective with teens who don’t want to abide by curfew.) Setting limits in this empathetic manner allows a loving parent to feel better about their role as disciplinarian. They can still enforce age appropriate boundaries while simultaneously nurturing their child with empathy. The child begins to learn how to recognize and identify their own emotions and grows to understand that their feelings matter. Learn more about our services for kids and families here.
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