Let’s take an even deeper look at empathy. Empathy can be confused with “sympathy,” which occurs when we feel an emotion on someone’s behalf. Usually, sympathy means that we feel badly for someone who is hurting. Empathy is different from sympathy. It goes the extra mile: it considers a range of emotions in ourselves and others, and it calls us to enter into those feelings.
Empathy is the ability to “stand in someone else’s shoes.” It allows us to see our child’s perspective on the world and respond from this place.
Here, we will explore how we as earliest nurturers can develop greater emotional awareness in ourselves so that we can show greater empathy to our children.
Where your young child is now
We know little ones are naturally self-centered. Being focused only on themselves–their own needs, feelings, and desires–is basic to their survival in their earliest years.
As children grow, they must be encouraged to look beyond just their own wants, needs, and feelings. They must learn to understand the wants, needs, and feelings of others along with their own. This probably won’t happen naturally or quickly! Children need patient guidance as they learn that every person sees the world a bit differently. They also need healthy nurturers to model kind, compassionate, connective behaviors to them each and every day.
Before little people can show empathy to others, they must first receive it in their earliest relationships. Receiving the gift of empathy from you is essential for developing a healthy relationship with your child. It also creates the foundation for your child to form healthy relationships with others over time.
What we pour into them now is what will flow from their hearts and minds as they grow!
Growing our own understanding of emotions
Emotions are complex for all of us to navigate, no matter our age. As we grow in our understanding of our own emotions, we are better equipped to show our little ones empathy for theirs.
By focusing some energy on our own emotional growth–and on our relationships with others–a little each day, we as parents and caregivers can make a tremendous difference in what we have to offer our children.
It can help to remember these three truths:
- Emotions just ARE!
The process of experiencing emotions can be summed up in “The 3 B’s”:
- Emotions start in the BRAIN as we perceive the world with our senses.
- They flow to the BODY.
- We show them in our BEHAVIOR.
Little ones must learn from you–their earliest teachers–how to recognize the emotional experiences occurring in their brains. They must also grow in their awareness of how these brain experiences (perceptions) show up in their bodies. Finally, over many years of supported practice, they will learn how to show their emotions through appropriate behaviors.
Our brains, bodies, and behaviors are deeply interconnected from birth. The parts of our brains that are responsible for emotional regulation are incredibly limited in a child’s earliest years. If babies feel it, they show it! When a toddler wants it, you will know! Their BIG feelings are expressed in pretty vibrant ways.
A newborn’s brain will explode with growth in the first three years of life! It will triple in size and form 1,000 trillion neural connections in these earliest years.
Every moment of every day is an opportunity to shape your baby’s brain growth. Little ones need a lot of nurturing “emotional coaching” experiences early on in order to become their healthiest emotional selves. Your ability to “stand in your little person’s shoes” will help you guide her in her journey.
You can focus on your own ability to feel an emotion…to name it…to notice how it impacts your body…to choose how to express it appropriately in your behavior.
With intentional practice, we can learn to become comfortable feeling all of our feelings! No shame, no judgment, no condemnation. We can know that emotions just ARE, and we can make wise choices about how we show them.
2. Cave or Tunnel?*
Some of us have grown up in families and situations where our feelings were not mentioned, or maybe they were not considered acceptable. As we grow, we can experience struggles in our own mental and emotional health, as well as in our relationships, because of these mindsets.
We may have learned to avoid really uncomfortable-to-feel emotions like disappointment, sadness, anger, and fear. We may think that if we begin to feel these emotions, we will be entering a dark cave. We are afraid we will be stuck forever with no way out, that we will always be here in this difficult emotion.
When our little ones experience any of these emotions–and they will!–we may feel uncomfortable, panicky, or as if something is very wrong. We might respond by trying to immediately distract, stop, or avoid our child in these moments due to our own emotional upset.
It is healthier to think of uncomfortable emotions not as dead-end caves, but as open-ended tunnels. When you enter a tunnel, it is dark for a time, but then there is an end–a LIGHT! You must go through that “tunnel of deep, dark emotion” in order to get to that light.
Perhaps this “emotional tunnel mindset” will help you become more willing to allow your full range of emotions, and to show empathy for your little one’s full range of emotions, too.
3. “Withness” = The One Big Goal
The more comfortable we are feeling our feelings, the better we will become at sharing emotional experiences with our little ones. Young children need your presence, your understanding, your validation–your “withness”–on their life journeys. This is truly The One Big Goal of showing empathy to a young child: withness.
“Withness” communicates at the deepest possible level, “I see you. I feel you. You are loved. You belong. I am here for you no matter what state you are in.”
Your young DHH child needs your empathy–your withness–not just in hard moments, but in ALL moments. Create safety through offering empathy. Receive your little one just as she is. Think, “Of course he feels this way! If I were in his shoes, I probably would, too!” Choose togetherness and presence rather than solving, rescuing, distracting, or avoiding. Withness goes further than actions, signs, or words ever will!
To carry with you…
By allowing ourselves and our little ones to experience a variety of feelings, we help them to become their healthiest emotional selves. When we choose to extend empathy–that deep sense of “withness” that comes from standing in their shoes–we give them a lifelong gift: healthy relationships with themselves, with us, and with others.
The full range of emotions–and often more than one in any given moment–will occur time and again over the course of your little one’s life. It is critical that your little person be equipped to recognize, name, and express these feelings in healthy ways. You have the privilege of helping him grow in this process.
If you’d like to dig even deeper into personal emotional growth, here is a great resource developed by Lindsay Braman, a mental health counselor and artist:
*This concept has been borrowed from The Wisdom of You by Marc Alan Schelske.