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Empathy Works When It Is Genuine

A lot of people think they know what the term empathy means but I am not sure that they have the complete picture. For example, some people confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone while empathy is an attempt to feel what the other person is feeling. When you feel sorry for someone you may want to help them with whatever situation is causing stress, perhaps through problem-solving. When you feel empathy, you can create a deeper connection that results in the other person feeling heard and understood.

Many of us know that we need to give kids empathy, but we don’t realize that unless you feel it internally, it can often not help or indeed make things worse. Expressions of empathy are not about reading a script like, “I hear that you are upset” or “It looks like you are having a hard time”. If the parent does not feel the empathy inside, it can come across as condescending or dismissive. Our tone, facial expression, and body language all indicate what we are really feeling and if it is annoyance or judgment, then those come across regardless of the words coming out of our mouths.

The question remains, how does one learn how to express empathy genuinely? Attempting empathy helps build the “muscles” that are used when expressing it. Giving empathy to yourself is also a good way to learn to give it to others. It helps to ask yourself questions about what comes up for you when someone is upset. Were you taught that expressions of sadness are a sign of weakness? Did you not receive genuine empathy when you were growing up and did you stifle your own feelings since you knew they would be met with disdain? Often when the situation calls for us to use a skill that was never or rarely demonstrated to us as children, we relive the pain of growing up that way. That pain is triggered by other people getting upset and results in a lack of empathy on your part.

If you recognize that empathy was not modeled for you or for whatever reason you did not develop the skill well, you can practice recognizing your initial reactions, understand and give empathy to yourself and then move on to offering it to your child. The more you practice the faster you can move through this internal practice so that giving empathy becomes second nature. Slowing down, observing the child’s behavior when they are upset, and sitting with them in silence aid in the development of empathy by triggering our innate ability to feel for other people.

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