I once read a fantastic article that discussed the true meaning of empathy (I am still trying to hunt it down, to no avail, but when I find it I will share it). The author states that empathy is felt by relating to what the other person is feeling, even if you would not feel the same way in the same situation. The example provided was this: A woman is walking down the street at night and feels afraid for her safety. A man might respond with: “Yes, I understand how you could feel afraid in that situation.” But for the man to truly be empathic, the man must think of a time when he felt afraid for his safety in order to empathize with how the woman was feeling.
When reading this article I was struck with an understanding of what it means to be truly empathic. I thought: This is what it really means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes! Putting yourself in the shoes of their emotional experience, not the physical or environmental experience. This is authentic empathy. And this is what children need from us. Children work very hard, every day, to learn, grow, and develop. Sometimes they do so with ease. At other times, the challenges get the best of them. When this happens, we see intense emotions, withdrawal, persistence, tears, comfort seeking behaviors, and many other things. It is in these moments that we need to harness the power of authentic empathy and swoop in to provide the support that will help the child overcome the challenge within the context of a positive interaction. Of course, the type of support will vary for each situation, child, and family but authentic empathy is still key. It is the key to developmental growth and also, to enriching your relationship with the child.
So, if your child falls apart over a piece of paper ripping (or something else you might believe to be trivial), resist the temptation to think “It’s just a piece of paper” or “It isn’t a big deal,” because to the child it is a big deal, and it is not trivial. So instead, think about a time when you felt as upset as your child does in that moment and authentically empathize with him or her. Then, give your child the emotional support he or she needs to calm down. This will go a long way in supporting the child’s developmental growth and your relationship with the child.