What’s Empathy Got To Do With It?

Written By:  Erica Moltz, MA, NCC, Clinical Director

In a previous blog about mindfulness, we highlighted “Stop, Drop, and Roll” , an effective strategy to use when your child presents with challenging behaviors.  The first step is to “stop” the action, bring yourself into the present moment and de-escalate any big thoughts or feelings you may have .  The next step is to “drop” inside by breathing into a more regulated and calmer place so that you are in the present moment and not worrying about your child’s previous behaviors or what she may do next.  When you are mindful and in the present moment,  your thinking brain is in control and you will have  the option to  “roll” out from a more thoughtful, intentional and less reactive place. 


When a child is acting out with challenging behaviors, it is likely that he/she is in the amygdala, or the survival part of the brain.  At these times of acute stress, the “downstairs” part of the brain is in charge and reacting, while the “upstairs”  thinking brain is essentially off-line.  When a child’s amygdala is in charge, a seven year old may have a tantrum and refuse to listen, a ten year old may walk away when a parent confronts him about lying, and a teen may yell that she hates her adoptive mom and wants to live with her real mom.


At times like this, using empathy is an effective strategy for dealing with challenging behaviors  and developing and maintaining a strong parent- child connection.  Dan Siegel, an expert in child psychology, says that, “empathy is the capacity to have some sense of the internal mental stance of another person”.   When parents use mindfulness to be more aware of their own triggers, they will have an easier time using empathy to help their child “feel felt”, which will enhance the attachment between the child and the parent.  Although “feeling felt” is important for all children, it is essential for a child who has had a history of trauma and insecure attachment.


Let’s see how this can work with real life scenarios.  Take the example of a seven year old who won’t get up and dressed during the first week of camp to make her car pool ride on time.  She not only stalls, but has a full blown tantrum when her father tries to hurry her along.  The “Stopping” and “Dropping” parts for the father may entail awakening earlier to calm himself down and get his “upstairs” brain on-line so that he may have the time and energy to lie down in bed with his child and gently and more slowly wake her up with a song or soft touch.  Then, once this connection with his child is established, he can “roll out” with a plan about what needs to happen to get ready for camp.  If, however,  even the mention of camp triggers a huge reaction, he can gently and curiously wonder if she may feel worried and scared about camp.  Dan Siegel talks about this strategy, “naming to tame”, which means naming the feeling for a child to help her understand that her behavior may be related to the feeling she has inside.  The challenge for this father is then is to allow his daughter to talk about what is bothering her without feeling that he needs to rush in and problem solve.  First, she has to “feel felt” and her amygdala has to be quieted down before problem solving will have any meaning.  The father and daughter are speaking two different languages if his “upstairs” thinking brain is trying to communicate with her “downstairs” reactive/survival brain.  Empathizing will help her “feel felt” so that she may stop anticipating camp with dread, and Dad will remember that when he picks her up from camp each day, she seems happy and tells him she is making friends and is having a good time.

Or take the example of a 10 year old whose mother directs him not to have any cookies before dinner.  When the mother starts preparing dinner, she realizes that all the cookies are gone and her son has been the only one home.  The mom asks him “why he ate the cookies” and he denies it.  She has explained her value to him many times – that lying is even worse than committing the “offense” in the first place, and that he will get in more trouble if he lies than if he tells the truth.  He continues to say he didn’t do it, accuses his mother of not trusting him, and angrily leaves the room. This is a perfect time for this mom to “stop” and “drop inside” to get her upstairs/ thinking brain on-line so that she won’t be tempted to yell at him and start to consequence him for lying.  Instead, from a place of mindfulness, she could begin by apologizing to him because asking him if he ate the cookies didn’t make sense since no one else was at home and she knew it had to be him.  With an empathetic, curious, and accepting tone, she could wonder if he is not telling her that he ate the cookies because he is too ashamed and scared to tell the truth, and that this must be a really hard position to be in.  Perhaps, in his previous foster home, it was very scary for him to tell the truth and he still feels that way. Then, the challenge for this parent is to wait and allow her son to be with whatever feelings he is having.  If he still denies eating the cookies, then maybe the parent could share that she hopes at some point he will feel comfortable telling the truth. 


Another common and challenging scenario is when a 16 year old gets furious with her adoptive mother when told that she cannot go to a party with all her friends because there will be no adult chaperone there.  “Stopping” may mean that this mother has to quiet her inner voice down and “drop” inside so that she does not take personally her daughter’s comment that she wants to live with her “real” mother because she would trust her and understand how important the party is to her.  This mother’s challenge is to not be ruled by her own “downstairs” brain, and remind herself instead that she is her “real” mom and that her daughter is just very angry right now.  The empathetic “rolling” out may be this mom saying to her daughter that she understands how furious she is and how incredibly hard it is that she doesn’t have control over whether she can go to this party.  The parent can further explain that this is what good parents do in situations like these.   Then, the parent has to allow this teen to have her reaction, trusting that this is part of the separation and individuation process.  It may not be until that night or the next day, when the teen and her mom can watch a movie together and share a bowl of popcorn, repairing their relationship.


Do you have a challenging parenting situation you would like to share?  Please respond with questions, comments, and other ideas about this blog.   


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Tags: Empathy,Mindfulness
Category: Foster Care
Category: Adoption

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