How to Be a Parent Your Child Wants to Talk to
The closeness of the parent/child relationship protects kids from anxiety.
Posted June 18, 2018
As a child therapist, the most common complaint I hear from parents is, “He just won’t talk to me.” Feeling estranged from your child can be painful for both you and your child. Research indicates that the most important predictor of a child's emotional and psychological stability is the closeness of the parent/child relationship. If the child is not opening up when he or she is upset, the relationship is not as close as it needs to be.
There are two habits that parents’ routinely engage in that shut down communication and drive a child away: negating feelings and mistaking sympathy for empathy.
A child truly in distress because of feeling hurt, disappointed, worried, or angry, desperately needs his or her parent. Yet, often, parents don't want to see their child feeling negatively, so their first instinct is to tell the child not to feel the way they do. Before they think, statements such as, “don’t be disappointed” or “don't be mad” escape. The result is that the child feels ashamed of how they feel, compounding the hurt. Moreover, the knowledge that their parent does not understand, leaves them feeling alone, which is detrimental. Basically, the child learns that opening up about how they feel makes them feel worse.
Examples of statements to avoid:
Don't feel that way.
Don't be disappointed.
Don't be like that.
Don't be mad.
You are too sensitive.
A better idea is to empathize. Honor their feeling. Feelings are never wrong, it's what kids do with feelings that can get them in trouble.
Examples of empathic statements:
That's a big worry. I get it.
You are upset. I would be too.
You have every right to feel disappointed. I felt like that when I was your age.
You are mad. I understand. You have every right.
It hurts to see someone do something you want to be able to do, but can't yet.
You are mad. I'm sure you have a good reason. I want to hear about it.
After you give them a solid dose of empathy, the child feels understood and connected to you, which means they immediately feel better, and will want your help in problem solving. In many cases, the empathy is all they need to feel better. Simply knowing their parent understands allows them to feel secure and forge ahead.
Here's how it works: Empathy creates good vagal tone in a child's brain and immediately calms them. The vagus nerve originates in the medulla, which is the part of the brain that controls the central nervous system. When there is good vagal tone, the entire central nervous system is soothed. Afterwards, the child settles down and can logically think through problems with you. The child also feels understood and close to you, which allows him or her to forge ahead with a sense of security.
No parent wants a child that feels sorry for themselves, plays the victim, or is overdramatic, and maybe that is the fear that prevents a parent from being empathic. However, honoring a child’s feelings is actually what prevents a sense of entitlement or a victim mentality in a child. Sympathy, on the other hand, disrupts any chance of emotional attunement and tempts parents to enable. The parent saves and rescues their child from negative feelings instead of helping them work through difficult feelings.
For example, on the way home from hockey practice one night, Jimmy, my 8-year-old son, said to me, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I'm the worst one every night. I barely got put in.”
Now, I have two choices, the sympathetic response or the empathic response.
1)The sympathetic response is, “Poor guy, I'm going to call your coach and talk to him. I don't think it's fair that he benches you for most of the practice.”
2) The empathic response is, “That hurts, kiddo. It hurts to feel like you’re the worst one. I get it. I've felt like that a lot in my life. It stinks. Keep at it. It will get better.”
In essence, the sympathetic response, tempts us to ask that the rules be changed or concessions be made for our child, which teaches them to play the victim. Also, it requires no emotional investment on the parent’s part because the parent becomes the powerful saver and rescuer, which strokes the parent’s ego. It is the easy way out.
The empathic response requires the parent to shift from how they feel, to how the child feels. It's emotional attunement. It's the parent remembering how it feels to be the worst one at something, so they can relate to their child. It's selfless and it puts the child first, emotionally. When there is emotional attunement, the child feels understood, and connected to you, which allows them to feel secure and more able to forge ahead and try again. Empathy creates a rugged work ethic and resilience in a child. The child will thrive on adversity instead of breaking down when negative things happen. Empathy creates brave and strong human beings.
Stay close to your child. Empathize and empower. The reward will be priceless.