10 Talents of Parenting: Understanding and Empathy

If we look under the surface of our children's behavior, at how they might be feeling, we are often in a better position to get things back on track. How have you nurtured that talent of looking deep inside, understanding where a child's behavior is coming from and seeing the pain behind the problems?

By Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.

When our children have been "bad," it's hard for us to remember that they need comfort rather than punishment. After all, when you have made a mistake, would you rather get understanding or criticism?

The best way to cultivate empathy is to focus on children's underlying needs and feelings, instead of reacting to the behavior. If we tune in to what they need - including the need to be understood - then children will be more cooperative and happier.

But empathy - identifying and understanding another person's feelings and difficulties - can be hard. Most of us didn't get enough empathy when we were little. Now that we aren't little anymore, we usually don't want to think about when we were, and we certainly don't want to feel those old scary or painful feelings again.

Sometimes we avoid empathy simply because we can't handle the heartbreak of empathizing with our own child's pain. So, instead, we yell at, scold, punish and ignore our kids, focusing on what they are doing instead of what they are experiencing underneath.

To develop the talent of tuning in to what is really going on under the surface, try "breaking the code" of children's behavior. Translate what they are doing into a sentence that starts with "I feel ____" or "I need ___" and fill in the blank. Respond to that need or feeling, rather than the behavior. (Remember, no child needs a kick in the keister! And focus your translations on real feelings, like sadness, loneliness or shame, not things such as "I need to drive Mommy crazy.")

If a toddler starts pulling everything off the counter, he may be saying, "I need something to do." If an eighth-grader starts forgetting to do her homework, she may be saying, "I feel scared about high school coming up." You won't always be right about your translation, but it always helps to try to locate the need or feeling underneath.

In Raising Cain, the recent PBS television special about the emotional life of boys, Michael Thompson, Ph.D., noted that the reason boys often lie when they are confronted with something they did wrong is to avoid feeling shame, because boys are trained to avoid any vulnerable feeling or show of weakness. Of course, we want boys to take responsibility for their behavior, but Thompson suggests that this is more likely to happen if we give them time and support, remembering that underneath male anger and aggression is a deep well of sadness and loss. Our job is to feel empathy for those feelings, even when they are completely hidden.

A friend of mine told me about a discovery he made when he was camping with his children:

As we sat around the campfire, my older son, he's 7, was being more and more obnoxious. He was teasing his little sister for being scared of the dark, talking loudly enough to wake the nocturnal animals, and making rude comments. I was getting annoyed, and was on the verge of one of those famous "Dad statements," like "I'm going to take you home right now, blah blah blah."

I got up to get something out of the tent, and my son said, "Wait." Something about his tone of voice made me stop, and I suddenly realized he was scared. Now everything made sense: This was why he was making fun of his little sister (who wasn't ashamed to sit right up close to me), this was why he was being loud, and this was why he was being aggressive. I invited him to come sit on the log next to me.

I had been planning to tell a ghost story - I'm glad now that I didn't. Instead, I told them about the first time I went camping, and how I was scared of a noise that turned out to be my friend's dad snoring in the next tent. The highlight of the whole trip was recognizing that it was OK for my children to be scared, and that I was pretty good at comforting them and boosting their confidence. For the rest of the trip, whenever I thought someone might be scared, I'd make a loud fake snoring noise, and we'd all laugh.

Have you had that "aha!" experience of recognizing that a sad, hurt or lonely feeling was fueling your child's annoying behavior? Take a look at the last few times you blew up at your kids. What's your best guess about what they were feeling when they were misbehaving? What did they need? And don't forget to have a little empathy for yourself. I know you only "misbehave" as a parent because of your own buried feelings of frustration, fear, sadness and anger.

See all 10 Talents of Parenting

Larry Cohen

Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children's play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting(Ballantine Books, 2001).