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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Learning to use Empathy is the first step in making an emotional intelligent child

In Sanjeevani's case that we discussed in the earlier blog, we saw the importance of empathy. Before helping her daughter Vidya to behave differently, she has to understand what her daughter is feeling and why.

According to John Gottman, the renowned researcher on marriage relationship and parenting, "Empathy not only matters, it is the foundation of effective parenting". Although sympathy and empathy are used in similar ways, they are different. In sympathy, you feel the emotions of others, but in empathy you go one step beyond - you can also understand why someone is feeling that by putting yourself in that person's shoes. So empathy is more personal. When you feel 'heard' in the presence of someone, then someone is showing 'empathy'.

Why does Empathy work? Empathy works so well , because understanding is enough to resolve many of the issues. One does not require any 'solution' to resolve an issue. When you are, for instance, facing disagreements with your partner, empathy is enough even if there is 'no solution' to the disagreement.

Three-step process of practicing empathy

Step 1: Embrace the feeling

When you see your child in disagreement or distress, or facing an issue with someone, and the child comes to you, describe the feeling you think you are seeing. Embrace the feeling. Do not run away from it. Do not intellectualise it, or moralise it.

For instance, Sanjeevani, observing that Vidya is not giving the biscuit to Uncle, her first response should be to observe Vidya's posture and describe the emotional changes Vidya could be experiencing. For instance, she could ask Vidya "It seems that you love biscuits so much." Or 'You look upset with something." "Or you look angry with something'. If Sanjeevani senses that she is angry with Uncle, she could also say " Are you angry with your Uncle?". The idea in the step 1 is to just identify the emotion, and try to 'name' the emotion. Nothing more.

Step 2: Guess the trigger of the feeling.

Only after you get some kind of 'acknowledgement' that you have named the right feeling, you should take this second step.

In the second step, the parent has to guess the origin of the 'named accepted' feeling. If Vidya shows that she is 'angry with something', then Sanjeevani has to make an educated guess and 'guess the origin of anger'. For instance, Sanjeevani could say ' It seems that you are angry because you did not do well in the exam today'. Or ' You seem to be angry because your toy has got broken'. Or ' You seem to be angry because you had a fight with your friend' and so on.

As you would have realised, that making these guesses is not easy. One must be fully aware of the 'context' of a other person, to make the 'appropriate' guess.  It comes with practice.

Step 3: Resolve ( Not dissolve) the feeling 

Once the child accepts the 'feeling' and also the 'origin' of the feeling, then the child would acknowledge it. If the child is too distressed, she might come to the parent's lap and rest. Or she may just show in her body language. Once the child 'acknowledges', the feeling is resolved. It may recur again. It does not get dissolved.

Parents are often tempted to use the 'situation' and give more advice. For instance, Sanjeevani could now give a long lecture to Vidya as to how " It is not good to get angry with the friend'. Please refrain from this step. Just resolve the feeling. If advice has to be given, give a very specific advice. Take a deep breath, if necessary, and wait. Let the moment be 'accepted'. No further advice is necessary. Empathy is a powerful resolver.


After reading the three steps, you will understand why Sanjeevani was wrong in pushing Vidya to change her behaviour. She kept on asking Vidya to change her behaviour without showing empathy. Even if Sanjeevani had succeeded, Vidya would have felt 'unheard' and therefore 'felt cheated'. If this kind of experience keeps on repeating, Vidya will stop listening to her mother. Then, Sanjeevani will wonder what went wrong?

If you find practicing empathy with child is difficult, practice it with your spouse or close friend. It may be easy to learn empathy with spouse or friend, because you will get feedback on your ability to name the right emotion, guess the right origin, and then wait for the closure to happen. Practicing with spouse is more beneficial, because it also increases marital satisfaction.

Empathy is so critical in parenting that parents with empathy enjoy the highest probability of raising smart, happy and morally aware kids. They may not raise a child who is a genius like Einstein, but they will raise a child who is emotionally intelligent. 

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