It’s confusing to know what to say when your child is expressing sadness, fear, anxiety, loneliness, or other emotion about a personal challenge they are facing. Most of us have not been trained on talking about our own emotions much less how to respond to our child’s emotions.
It’s typical to respond in ways that try to eliminate your child’s uncomfortable feelings because they trigger our own uncomfortable feelings. Also, isn’t it our job to make our children happy? Have we failed if they are unhappy?
I’d like to propose a different parenting belief. That our job is to help our kids learn how to deal with life’s challenges in a healthy manor so they can cope successfully as adults. This means suffering as kids and having us support them through the angst and into the light through you embracing the Supporter Role. (Chapters 37 – 39 in Ally Parenting)
The first step as a Supporter is to keep your child talking about their difficult feelings This means to first stop saying what causes them to shut down. My mentor Michael Popkin calls them communication blocks. A communication block is an attitude or comment by the listener (you) that injures the speaker’s (child’s) self-esteem to the point that communication is broken off. You can find detailed information about communication blocks in my book Ally Parenting in chapter 10.
Each block has the potential to hurt the self-esteem of the speaker, so they don’t want to talk to you anymore. Each person responds differently to each potential block.
Examples of communication blocks are:
I suggest that you tell your kids that you are working on responding more effectively when they are sharing their struggles.
To understand them better, you would like to show them examples of communication blocks and have them tell you which ones you do. Be prepared to hear that you do several of them. At this point, suggest that you can focus on fixing 1 or 2 first so which two do they want you to try and stop doing? Also, tell them how to let you know you are blocking so they learn how to give caring feedback. They will love telling you and knowing that they aren’t the only person who is the problem.
Only after focusing on not blocking communication, will they trust you enough to share so you can practice the step 2 which is to listen openly by using empathetic responses. The goal of an empathetic phrase is NOT to tell them you understand. That’s you talking about your thinking. Instead, I consider an empathetic phrase as words that will keep your child sharing. They keep the door open rather than closing the door.
Keeping the communication door open is the ONLY point of an empathetic phrase.
It’s not to ask questions so you understand and can fix the problem. (Interrogating) It’s not to tell your child that everything will be okay. (Placating) It’s not to talk about yourself in hopes that your past suffering will make them feel better. (me-tooism)
So far you learned to focus on not blocking communication and instead to listen with empathetic responses so your child will keep talking. Now it gets more complicated. There are basically two ways to effectively respond empathetically depending on whether your child responds more favorably to thinker statements or to feeler statements. Chapters 9 to 13 in Ally Parenting will teach you about listening with empathy. The Thinker and Feeler concepts are derived from the Myers and Brigg’s Assessment.
Keep in mind that thinkers have feelings just as feelers do. They are just not as comfortable talking about them so it’s important to address the possible feelings of the situation rather than what they are personally feeling.
Some suggest saying to a thinker, “Tell me what happened”. This question is asking them to use their thinking brain, (prefrontal cortex) rather than their emotional brain (limbic system). The purpose of step two of the Supporter Role is to let your child vent so the emotions are released, and they can then think about and discuss the challenge logically in Step 3. Asking your child for details of what happened is focusing on facts, not feelings that are stuck in the limbic system.
A second option, that I recommend instead, is to use empathetic responses that point out the possible feelings that the situation could evoke in a person. You are removing the feelings from the child directly to a situation that can be more comfortable for a thinker. I believe it’s helpful for thinkers to hear feeling words even if they have a hard time saying what they are feeling.
Here are ideas of empathetic responses for thinkers. Notice that these are statements, not questions, and they don’t start with the word “you”. Also note the tentative words such as, could, looks like, can be, and sounds.
- “It’s hard having that happen.”
- “How upsetting, scary, frustrating, etc.”
- “That could really hurt someone’s feelings.”
- “That looks like a real problem.”
- “It can be frustrating not knowing what to do.”
- “Friendships can be hurtful.”
- “Wow. That sounds hard.”
With children who are comfortable expressing their feelings, feelers, using the word “you” along with a tentative intent plus a feeling word is usually accepted and encourages more talking. More intense feelings may come out which is the point of listening as a supporter. You are not listening to make them feel better right away. As they vent from the limbic system, then they will gradually be able to think more clearly and possibly talk about solutions with you.
Here are ideas of empathetic phrases to use with feelers.
If they reject your attempts and get angry at YOU, then reconsider your approach and try some thinker responses instead. Again, note that these phrases are tentative. Avoid saying, “you must be….” or “You are…” Remember that your goal is not to analyze your child and act like a know-it-all. You are simply listening openly in the Supporter Role. Note that they are not questions and that the tone is tentative with words like sound, perhaps, looks like, seem, wondering, guessing.
- “You sound pretty upset, worried, anxious, scared…”
- “Perhaps you are worried.”
- “It looks like you are struggling with…”
- “You seem angry…….”
- “I’m wondering if you are feeling….”
- “I’m just guessing. Perhaps you’re feeling confused and stuck as to what to do.”
When you try either approach, watch for your child’s response to determine whether they are currently a thinker or a feeler. One mom thought empathetic phrases meant she talked about her son’s feelings directly. He got angry and told her to stop using those words. When she shifted from the feeler approach to the thinker approach, he responded more favorably and didn’t get mad at her.
Mastering how to avoid communication blocks and how to listen openly through using empathetic phrases are skills you will use for a lifetime with y our kids, partner, friends, and in the workplace. I encourage you to take the time to get feedback from your children about your current blocks and focus instead on responding with empathetic phrases because this approach builds a deeper connection with others and will lead to greater happiness for everyone. To learn about the additional Supporter Roles, Step 3- Discuss Ideas and Step 4 – Check-in Later, I invite you to purchase my book Ally Parenting.
Copyright 2021 – Cynthia Klein – Family Happiness Expert – https:.//bridges2understanding.com – Contact me for a Free Fast-Track Clarity Session to discuss your parenting challenges. – Private Coach, Speaker, and Author of Ally Parenting: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Transform Conflict Into Cooperation –