Empathy in Action: Nurturing Growth in Your Child


When parents direct their kids and tell them what they should do to improve themselves, it lands on the child as I’m not okay the way I am, instead of empathy in action.  

Q. “How can I help my 8 year old son understand that I love him just the way he is AND I want him to grow, learn and improve? He says he feels humiliated and ashamed every time I ask him to learn something new because he feels like I’m saying he needs to be better than he already is.”

A. How wonderful that your son can tell you how your requests feel to him. So many kids just cram their feelings inside, and so many parents dismiss and deny their remarks with comments like, “That’s not true. I love you just the way you are. I just want you to learn to do new things.”

That sounds logical—to the mind of an adult. But an eight year old doesn’t read it that way. 

The hard part for the parent is to listen and learn from the child (empathy in action) when everything in us tells us they need to learn from us—because we know better. Because that’s how we were brought up. 

ChildhoodBelieve me, I understand that you want him to learn many different things so he has all kinds of options in life. Your intention is admirable and that of a concerned parent. But what you must learn is first to allow your son’s feedback, desires, opinions, and judgments (which you have) and then listen, read between the lines, acknowledge what he is trying to say and then problem solve—make compromises and agreements so all are heard.

That might sound like:

“Well that must feel pretty awful to think that I want you to be better than you are. That sounds like you must feel pressured by me to be different—as though I don’t love you the way you are.”

Bingo. Connection is made. He will likely breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Yeeesss.” Because you got it. Then…

“That is the last thing I want. Tell me more about how the things I say and expect land on you.” (this, only if you think he is ready to engage). Or “I don’t want you to feel pressured in any way. I wonder if it feels like you have to do it my way to make me happy.”

Notice I have not asked any questions. Questions set kids up to feel interrogated and pressured to come up with the right answer. Questions are fine but only after connection has been made. And that means your son must first feel that you completely understand him.

Mom and sonListen to what he has to say and respond to him. Hear the frustration he feels. Acknowledge it. Then you can share your concerns and work toward finding a way that works for both of you.

“What I’m really after is for you to learn and grow and have options to choose from. I guess that’s not coming across very well. Can we talk about what you want and don’t want from me and where we go from here?”

Connection is THE most important aspect of a parent/child relationship. Parents are all too quick to try to fix the problem; motivate their children to do what they think will make them happy, dismiss their disappointments and bad feelings with distractions or by cheering them up, taking responsibility for issues so the child doesn’t have to. We overprotect and in doing so we rob our children of the responsibilities they need to take themselves.

What does this have to do with your question? You want your son to try new things so he will learn and development new interests. But that’s your problem. It’s another form of coercion most likely based on your fear that he’s not doing enough, what will become of him. Not a harmful coercion like punishment, but a pressure felt by some kids to perform for the parent. 

I imagine your son is very sensitive to outside input and being asked to do something he doesn’t want. And very sensitive to your disappointment. He of course wants you to be proud of him, but he can’t do it in the way he thinks you want him to—hence the pressure to be better than he is.

Mom and sonYour job is to guide your son so he can find his own path. He’s only eight. Perhaps he’s just not ready to do what you want him to do. I know, it can be scary if it looks like he’s not interested in things. But if you focus on your connection and empathy with him, which is a fulltime job until it becomes automatic, he will feel stronger and more confident in himself—the qualities necessary to expand oneself to learn and grow.

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