My son is having trouble with his schoolwork. He says he is dumb, I tell him he is not, and it doesn’t seem to help; he just gets more upset. My child complains because all his friends have iPods, X-Boxs and flat screen TV’s, but he doesn’t. Anything I say to him makes him roll his eyes and stomp away. For my daughter, everything is a major tragedy: her hair, her friends, her grades. How do I teach her to understand what is important in life?
Rav Yisroel Salanter says that a child who is playing with a toy boat and it breaks or gets lost feels the same way that a merchant does when his ship is sunk at sea with all his worldly goods. We need to grasp this concept: that children and teens really feel strongly about their problems in their world. It seems so inconsequential (it is just a toy boat, it is just one grade,it is just a bad hair day and you don’t always get what you want) but is all-consuming to them. They don’t have the ability to work past their (seemingly) small difficulties; they cannot see the forest beyond the trees.
That is where we come in, that is our job – to help them see the big picture. But how do we accomplish this?
According to Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training, we need to fully enter their world and see things the way they do. We need to use empathy. Only when we use empathy do we help our children move past their problems and come up with their own solutions.
We don’t realize it, but we as parents generally deny children’s feelings instead of listening and reflecting − two key ingredients in delivering empathy.
When a child says, “I’m hot,” a parent will often say, “It’s cold in here, keep that jacket on.” A child will say, “I hate my hair,” and her parent will say, with good intention, “Your hair is beautiful.” When they persist that it’s not, a parent may respond, “Who is looking at you anyway?” When a child is having difficulty with his schoolwork and says, “I stink at math,” a loving parent will say, “No you don’t, you are very smart!” All of these statements are examples of how a parent unknowingly denies his or her child’s feelings.
Denial of feelings can be dismissive and tough: ”You don’t need an iPod, it’s too expensive.” But it can also be meant in a kind way, with the best of motives: “You have lots of friends and you learn so much, you wouldn’t even have time to use your iPod!” It can be an ill-timed lesson in morality: “iPods are for people who are self –involved and don’t care about the environment, plus having earphones in your ears can damage your hearing.”
Any way you slice it though, it remains a denial of feelings and causes, anger, frustration, conflict and closes the channels of communication. The end result? Rolled eyes, terminated conversations, huffiness or shouting.
Just think about the last time you had a rough day and you told your friend about it, and she replied, “Oh it couldn’t have been so bad,” or, “You’re getting upset about one bad day,” or, “Well, that ‘s life.” You are annoyed about her response and feel stupid for even confiding in her. What you needed at that time was empathy, not philosophy, advice or denial of your feelings.
I was once paying a shiva call (a visit to a mourner during the first seven days of mourning) to a woman whose mother had a severe stroke and died very soon after. There were a few women there who had experienced the difficulty of taking care of a very sick parent or spouse for a long period of time. In attempts to console her they said, “It is better that she went quickly; you didn’t have to watch her suffer; it is better that way.” I’m sure their motives were absolutely pure, but their consolations were misguided. Who cares how she went? Fast or slow is not the point. She just needed to hear, “I am so sorry, it hurts so much. We are here for you, we are here to help pull you through this, any way you need.”
Pirkei Avot 6:6 lists empathy, nose b’ol chavero, as one of the 48 ways to acquire Torah. There are four excellent techniques that teach us how to deliver empathy and you can use them in any relationship.
- Listen with your full attention and eye contact. Respond at intervals with vocal signs of attentiveness, such as making little listening noises (“uhuh, uhuh, really? Wow.”)Don’t interrupt them when they are speaking; let them “get it all out”
- Give their feelings a name: “You sound so: frustrated/upset/tired/annoyed/embarrassed,” or, “That must hurt”
- Verbalize their fantasy wishes: “You wish you could have every toy in Toys ‘R Us!”; “You wish school was two days a week and the weekend was five days”
- Use empathetic words, such as “so sad” or “too bad” and ask, “What are you going to do?”
These skills teach you to listen. They give children words with which to describe their inner realities and the strong emotions that they are experiencing.
To a child who is having trouble with school work, we can give his feelings a name: “You sound frustrated. This work is really getting to you.” Give him his wishes in fantasy: “You wish this subject came easier to you.” Empathize and ask him what he will do: “This is hard; what would you like to do? He may well come up with a productive response: “Maybe I will ask Levi to help me, he knows his stuff.”
When you first start using these skills, it feels awkward. But one you get the hang of it, you will see the everyday power struggles with your children melt away. You will be amazed at how children take responsibility for their own behavior and are able to achieve a mindset where they can solve their own problems.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Press.
Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP, is a Parent Educator with Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau in Cleveland, OH. View her online classes at www.parentingsimply.com.