Practice Empathic Parenting to Help Cultivate Healthy Anger

Helping your child and yourself to practice healthy anger.

Posted Oct 22, 2017

While the news media seems to increasingly report incidents of child and adolescent violence, far more often, children and teens who have difficulties with anger may exhibit bullying, underachievement, substance abuse, excessive guilt or shame, or intense anxiety related to mismanaged anger. And research continues to emphasize that anger that culminates in these difficulties and violence occurs more often when children and teens lack an empathic connection in their relationships–with others and with themselves.

While some children and teens may achieve this connection with peers and others, it is the parent-child connection that can most strongly impact how they manage tension, conflict and anger. By connection, I mean a relationship that actively and openly nurtures their capacity for exploring, sharing and discussing their internal landscape. This includes supporting self-reflection regarding their thoughts and feelings–especially their fears and their passions.

Such connection offers empathy and, through modeling, teaches a child to be empathic. Empathy involves listening without judgment and letting your child know that you can understand his experience. Such empathy validates your child’s feelings and helps him helps your child to more freely and fully explore his thoughts and feelings–rather than acting on them. This connection fosters the capacity for pausing to to reflect, rather than react to anger. Being empathic doesn’t mean acceptance of or tolerance for what you view as inappropriate behavior. Such a connection helps your child to honor his thoughts and feelings.

Further, empathic connection offers him support in getting to know himself and free energy that might otherwise be wasted in minimizing, hiding from, or denying parts of himself. As such, it is an antidote for suppression and denial that may make him more prone to anger.

The challenge for every parent is to be mindful to foster and support this type of connection. Understandably, even the most caring and well-meaning parent may not be consistently available to really connect with his or her child.  It is a challenge that often competes with time demands, the demands of a career, and trying to provide the basics. Similarly, the pressures of being a single parent may compete with fostering such a connection.

Perhaps the most important influence on the connection you form with your child is your personal history with receiving empathy and with being empathic.  Your own self-reflection and comfort with your thoughts and feelings will very much influence your connection with your child and his connection with himself.

The following guidelines identify key areas of concern if you wish to form a more meaningful and supportive connection with your child. By doing so, you will help him become more resilient in dealing with negative feelings and the reactivity that makes one prone to anger.

123rfStock/Ines Bazdar
Source: 123rfStock/Ines Bazdar

Work at being empathic with yourself

Validating our own feelings and needs helps us to become empathic with others, including our children. Doing so helps us to feel more human. And doing so reminds us that our feelings provide us with valuable information–if we take time to listen to them. Increasing our emotional intelligence is fundamental to helping our children with cultivating healthy anger. Three of the skills of emotional intelligence are: 1- Being able to better identify and distinguish our feelings, 2- Being able to be self-soothing and regulate our negative feelings and 3. Being able to recognize feelings in others.

By discussing your feelings with your child you set an example and give your child permission to share his feelings. I’m not suggesting you share feelings inappropriately, such as relating to your child as a confidant or burdening them with your needs. And remember, too much sharing of your own pain may only cause your child to be “overly” empathic–too quick to be overwhelmed by the feelings of others.  Rather, discussing your feelings about work, a movie, the news or, most importantly, feelings about him, all contribute to greater freedom for emotional acceptance.

Emphasize that self-reflection is constructive for healthy emotional development

The more comfortable we are in looking inward, the more our child will value self-reflection. Self-reflection doesn’t imply self-absorption or involve obsessive-rumination. Rather, it emphasizes a search to understand ourselves more fully–our thoughts, emotions and behavior. It helps us to more clearly make decisions and behave in ways that reflect our values and who we wish to become.

Learn to comfortably discuss conflict with your child or teen.

Being able to help your child manage anger very much depends on your ability to sit with the discomfort of conflict. This may involve your self-reflection to recognize unrealistic expectations you have regarding your child. Or it may consist of more clearly identifying how you feel threatened by such conflict. 

Be mindful to how your sensitivity to conflict may interfere with your ability to listen to your child and to set limits where indicated. Your concern with disappointing him or being the target of his anger may only undermine your capacity to discuss a conflict, yet alone set limits on his behavior when indicated.

Make a commitment to be empathic

Being empathic may not always be easy, especially when you are challenged to sit and listen to a child who is expressing thoughts and feelings that may be opposed to your own, challenge your values, appear totally unrealistic, or make you uncomfortable. This is a moment to remind yourself that feelings are separate from behavior.

Being empathic may be especially challenging for you if you have past wounds that have not been fully mourned. These may lead you to minimize your need for empathy and, subsequently, make you less available to give it.  Additionally, you may have had a history that minimized your need for empathy and has led you to conclude that empathy and compassion reflect weakness.

Strive to be consistent

This doesn’t mean that you will always be empathic. Rather, it calls for your being mindful to cultivate an empathic connection. And, when you fail at being empathic, it is important to remember that you can always acknowledge this later on. In spite of thinking that the moment has passed, it can be extremely valuable to share your intent and, at times, your failure to be empathic

Be open to learning about yourself

Self-reflection and self-knowledge enhance your connection with yourself and your capacity to develop a richer and more fulfilling connection with your child. And, it consequently helps your child to foster a healthier self-connection as well. Self-reflection is essential for healthy anger management and it is the basis on which we can more freely choose how we wish to live our lives.

Actively seek out activities to help your child foster empathy

In recent years a broad variety of strategies have been identified that help children to foster empathy for others and themselves. For example, some key approaches to help children foster empathy can be found in the resources listed at the end of this article.

Dealing with our own anger as a parent and that of our child is an especially challenging task. It requires that we foster a more empathic connection with ourselves and with our children. And through such connections, we offer our children a foundation on which to cultivate healthy anger.

References

Resources:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_ways_to_foster_empathy_in_kids

http://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-nurture-empathy-in-children/

Golden, B., (2003) Healthy Anger: How to help children and teens manage their anger. New York: Oxford University Press