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How Empathic Parenting Is the Antithesis of Narcissism

Empathy is the cornerstone for love.

Key points

  • Showing a child empathy is an expression of unconditional love. One must put aside their own feelings and thoughts in order to empathize.
  • Empathizing with a child does not mean agreeing with them. Instead it simply acknowledges their feelings.
  • Learning self-compassion and giving up perfectionism helps parents empathize with their children.

If you had a narcissistic parent or just live in this narcissistic culture today, you may be wondering a lot about parenting and how to do things differently so you can raise a healthy, emotionally sound child.

When raised in narcissistic families, children grow up with an "empty tank" because their emotional needs were not met. They may have had a roof over their heads, food to eat, and clothes to wear, but emotionally they feel orphaned and alone. Their most precious inner emotional life was not encouraged to grow and mature. Feelings were not validated or acknowledged and the result is growing up with nagging self-doubt and a fragile sense of self.

Many parents out there are trying hard to rail against their own upbringing but struggle with how to parent and love unconditionally in order to raise good human beings, especially in a world where narcissism prevails. This is will be the first in a series of posts about how to do that.

Empathy tops the list. It is the cornerstone of love. It is the antithesis of narcissism.

Lack of empathy is a trademark of narcissistic parents. Empathizing with your children is feeling what they are feeling and acknowledging those feelings. It is the art of compassion and sensitivity, as well as the ability to give moral support in whatever they are experiencing. You do not have to agree with them but you are there for them. You put aside your own feelings and thoughts for the moment and tune in to their emotional needs to attempt to understand where they are coming from and why.

How to show a child empathy

Instead of citing rules or trying to give advice and direction, try this empathy exercise instead.

To empathize involves identifying the feelings your child is expressing and telling him or her that you recognize the feeling in the moment: "I hear that you are angry." "You are feeling sad." "I see that you are very upset." Being able to show empathy to a child at any age makes him or her feel real as well as important as a person.

This is difficult to do when a child is upset with you. Whenever you find your child's feelings to be threatening or upsetting, remember that empathizing is not agreeing; it is acknowledging a real feeling.

For example, my 5-year-old granddaughter asked for a cookie before dinner. I said, "No, we can have one after dinner." In a typical 5-year-old manner, she then said, "I hate you, Nana."

Well, I know she doesn't hate me and so does she, but she was angry that she did not get a cookie right then, and that was okay. I was able to say to her, "Honey, I know you don't hate your Nana, but you are mad right now because you want that cookie, and I understand that. I would like to have a cookie, too, right now, but we have to wait until after dinner. It is okay to talk about our mad feelings though and I am glad you told me."

In this example, my granddaughter needed to feel validated and acknowledged — then she was just fine. The temptation in situations like this is to get angry back at the child and even punish her, which only makes the child feel as if she has to stuff or muffle her own feelings. Your anger or punishment will also make the situation worse, and feelings will escalate.

Older children and teens often are purposely disrespectful to you. In this situation, you do have to set boundaries, but in order for your child to feel heard, you still have to acknowledge the feelings behind the words.

For example, an out-of-control teen may call her mother a derogatory name because she is angry about not being able to go to the mall, but the mother must set limits and consequences for this abusive behavior. At the same time, she can acknowledge the feeling that the child is upset. It is surprising to parents, the first time they do this, how effective it is in deflating kids' balloons of anger. The child can often become more reasonable because she has been seen and heard. She has been given a voice.

When my son was about 12 years old, he came home from school one day very angry and began throwing things around in a huff. When we later sat down to dinner, he picked up a plate and slammed it on the table. My first instinct was to tell him to knock it off and go to his room, but I said, "Honey, something is terribly wrong. You are very angry. Let's talk about what is wrong."

This immediately deflated the big red balloon of anger and he was able to express his feelings of being upset with his sister for something I can't really remember. I know now and knew then, that if I had sent him to his room or immediately punished him, his behavior would have escalated and we probably would never have gotten to the true feelings. Whatever he was angry about was much less important than acknowledging his feelings about it at the moment. He got to have a voice and be heard, and I was rewarded by no broken dishes!

When we can give empathy to our children or loved ones, we are doing a double good deed. Not only are we giving the greatest gift we can give another human being, but we are also modeling how to do it.

Interestingly, the ability to give empathy starts with doing that for yourself in the form of self-compassion. Learning to tune into your own feelings and acknowledge those will help you be able to do that for your own children. If raised in a narcissistic family, this is a skill that was not taught. Being kind to yourself will give you the tools to be kind to your children.


Learning self-compassion is hard for adult children of narcissistic parents. Not only were they not taught this but also they were often taught that this is selfish behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can't give what we don't have.

In a culture where we are often judged by what we do rather than for who we are, self-esteem can roller-coaster within a day depending on our perceptions of success or failure. Learning to give up perfectionism and understanding that compassion for self and our children is not only a skill worth learning but a gift that keeps on giving. What if sound parenting, as well as the pursuit of happiness, was as simple as the art of empathy?

More from Karyl McBride Ph.D.
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