OK In Health - Parenting Tips

The Power of Empathy - November 2017

By Maggie Reigh, Kelowna, BC

A young child crying

We know in our heart of hearts that we cannot eliminate struggle and emotional strife and yet many of us unconsciously, sometimes desperately, pursue this kind of surreally “perfect” family. We may even guilt-trip ourselves when we can’t make everything perfect for our children. We suspect that this is evidence that we are not perfect parents.

It drives us crazy that we can’t fix everything for our kids – and it drives them crazy that we keep trying to!

Ironically, it is often this desire to “fix everything” for our children that keeps our children and our relationships in conflict and in turmoil.

A mom from one of my parenting classes had an especially bouncy and optimistic “fix it” kind of personality. She was very concerned about her fourteen- year-old son who, in contrast, was sullen and quiet…rather depressed, she thought.
She assured us that she continually did everything she could to lift his spirits and “fix” his mood. I believed her. It was easy to imagine her flitting about telling him to “Rise and shine! Cheer up and look at the beautiful day!” Not such a bad message – certainly it came from her love for him – but it is not the first message one needs to hear when in the doldrums.

We talked about the power of empathy and listening to our kids when they are down and out. JUST LISTENING… with no intentions of fixing. We also discussed how body language can help us to connect with our children’s feelings and let them know that we are there for them. She left the workshop that evening with the firm resolve to stop talking and trying to fix and to just listen and connect, using body language as a helpful tool.

The next day when her son came home from school and went into the kitchen, she gave him the milkshake she’d just made him. He collapsed in the chair, slumping over the shake listlessly. She slumped over in the chair next to him with her shake. Mirroring his body language helped her connect with her son’s feelings and she kept quiet, determined to JUST LISTEN.

“The results were amazing!” she reported excitedly to the class the next week. “It was like the floodgates opened and for the first time in our lives he shared what he was feeling. He talked more this week than he has in the entire fourteen years of his life up until now. And I remembered just to listen!” She was elated as the weeks went by and she saw her son gradually leave his depression behind, while their connection grew stronger and stronger.

Before you set out to “fix” your child’s problems stop and think a moment. Is this really what he needs…or does he just need someone to listen to him and bounce ideas off of?

What do you need when you have a problem? I know when I’ve been working with a problem; struggling with it and nursing it for years, the last thing I want is for someone to move in and say, “Why don’t you just…” and solve it in one fell swoop. After all, if it were that easy I’d have solved it years ago!

In his book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, John Gray identifies the male need to fix everything as lying at the heart of many problems in their relationships with women. Women just want someone to listen! I think most of us do. I haven’t met too many men who want “fix it” advice from their partners or spouses either. I think kids are the same way.

Besides, if we really think about it, how will our children develop strength and learn to deal with life’s challenges if they never have to struggle?

Perhaps we adopted the “fix it” mode when they were very young and needed us to do so much for them. If they had to burp, they needed us. We became used to “fixing” things for them. We have to be astute and aware about our child’s growing abilities and recognize when to step back, empathize, and still let them work through their problems.

Before you jump in to fix things for your child

  • Stop! Ask yourself, “Are there dangerous or unhealthy consequences if I don’t interfere and help?”
  • If the situation is not dangerous, become curious, “What is going on for her right now? Is she frustrated, sad, angry?” Notice her body language. How do you feel when you let your body copy it?
  • Let her know that you are really there for her, witnessing her troubles. You can even reflect the feelings you think she’s experiencing, “It is really frustrating when your brother won’t let you play with him and his friend.” Then stop talking and listen.
  • Ask yourself what she needs right now – or ask her what she needs. This way you can help her develop the tools to sort through her own problems.
  • Think of yourself as a coach helping your child find the strength within to deal with the problem. You might remind her of the skills she developed through past experiences… “Remember one time your sister wouldn’t let you play and you found something even more exciting…

Perhaps we could let go of the “fix it” fixation if we stopped looking at problems as something “bad” that we need to clear out of our child’s life.

Remember that challenges are opportunities to learn. As Winston Churchill says, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." When we take responsibility for our children’s challenges, we deny them the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

Parenting is not an easy job… learning to step back, allow our child to take appropriate responsibility for his own problems, and simply listen is much more difficult than it sounds. Parents are often surprised at how many discipline hassles dissolve as they learn to listen to their children in ways that they feel understood… and how many tender moments of closeness and connection take their place!

Maggie ReighMaggie's Bio: Maggie Reigh is an international speaker, playshop facilitator, and storyteller, as well as a certified hypnotherapist. She is the author of the book and program series '9 Ways to Bring Out the Best in You & Your Child', and of the family activity package, 'Taking the Terror Out of Temper Tantrums'. Maggie specializes in helping people to release deeply embedded thought and behavior patterns that no longer work so that they can create joyful, positive, and meaningful relationships with self and others. Contact Maggie through her website. Lake Country BC - Maggie Reigh Website - Email

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