But you love school!
Go to your room until you can calm down.
Instead we can reflect back to our children the feelings and desires we hear them expressing.
Ouch. A scraped knee can really hurt.
It sounds like you’re not feeling like going to school right now.
Are you worried about the flu shot?
There are many benefits to empathizing regularly with our children, such as helping them to feel heard and understood, which allows them have a deeper trust in you and also helps them move on from emotional upset to being able to make effective choices. Just as importantly, when we reflect our children’s feelings back to them instead of automatically giving them advice, reassurance, or our own frustration, they learn that describing feelings is an important part of being in relationship with other people. Even more wonderful, they learn to empathize with other people.
One of my favorite family stories shows how all the empathizing I did with my children starting before they could even talk really paid off in their relationship with each other. Darwin and Forest are seven and almost five now, but imagine a few years back, four year Darwin and two year old Forest have just been tucked into bed.
“Good night, Darwin and Forest. We’ll check on you in five minutes.”
Our dog Chana is barking downstairs. Through the monitor I hear this conversation:
Forest: “Mine dog bahking!”
Darwin: “Chana’s barking!”
These sentences were repeated several times, with increasing enthusiasm. Forest got so excited that by the 4th or 5th repetition he was really shouting.
Darwin: “You don’t have to yell.”
Forest: “Hear me.”
A moment of quiet.
Forest, still yelling: “MINE DOG BAHKING!”
Darwin: “Stop saying that.”
Forest: “MINE DOG BAHKING!”
Darwin, yelling too now: “STOP SAYING THAT!”
Now Forest’s voice came back to a normal level.
Forest: “Me sad stop saying that. Me so sad.”
Darwin: “Are you sad because Chana is barking or because I said, ‘Stop saying that?’”
Forest: “Me sad ‘Stop saying that.’”
Darwin: “So you’re sad because I said, ‘Stop saying that?’”
Both kids got quiet. Forest rolled over in bed. Two minutes later he let out one final, gentle voiced, “Mine dog bahking.”
I adore this story because it shows how Forest, at age two, already knew to say his feelings when having a conflict with his brother. Darwin, at age four, already knew to empathize and also clarify his understanding by reflecting Forest’s comments back to him. Both children seemed to hear each other and be able to peacefully move on from the conflict. These are skills that adults often struggle to use even with each other. I was so excited that I quickly wrote down their conversation on a scrap of paper. It helps me to have a reminder that the effort I put into how I talk to my kids really does pay off.
Are you tired of the bickering and hitting, and ready to stop your own yelling, punishing, and taking sides? Siblings Without Rivalry is an eight class parenting series that will help you reduce conflict and generate goodwill among all your children. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen is appropriate for parents of single or multiple children.