A guide for parents to build positive emotional and behavioural skills in their children: The Empathy Approach

Kids do well if they can. If your child is not behaving well, they may not be feeling good, or may not have the skills to understand and/or control their feelings. Children act out as a way of expressing their feelings. At this delicate stage of life, they do not yet have the brain development and skills to tell you what their emotions are, or to understand how their feelings might impact on their behaviour. The role that adults and carers play during this process is significant. This involves the parent/carer using their own experiences, support, and resources to teach, model, encourage and help regulate emotions, desires, thoughts, and behaviours in their children.

Some common behaviours of a distressed, tired, upset, or anxious child are yelling/screaming, arguing, clinginess, crying, aggression, restlessness, avoidance or defiance. When children behave in this way, they are showing you that they are not in control of their feelings and need help to calm themselves down. Children who have experienced trauma, significant life events, or disrupted attachment with their caregiver(s), often have more difficulty calming down, and can need extra help to learn how to self-soothe.

Self regulation and ‘behaving well’ is a skill, and needs to be taught and nurtured in children as we are not born with it. Self regulation is about being aware of and naming your feelings, and having strategies to calm yourself down when feeling upset. You can teach your child how to self regulate through modelling how you yourself calm down and through empathy.

Responding to a child with challenging behaviours can seem overwhelming and parents/caregivers often believe that punishment or consequences are a way to stop the unwanted behaviours. This method may teach a child to discontinue a behaviour out of fear and avoidance, but it does not teach a child the skills they need to regulate/understand their own feelings and behaviours.

The empathy approach described below is an effective, alternative response to more conventional and mainstream models of parenting such as giving time-out, ignoring the negative behaviour, removing a favourite toy or activity, or other punitive methods to teach children consequences.

Research suggests that being punitive with children can lead to higher depression rates, lower self-esteem, and poorer social skills when they become adults. Furthermore, when using a punitive approach, children do not learn about their feelings and healthy ways to calm down; instead, they can learn to hide or lie about the negative behaviour to avoid punishment. This is fear-based learning, and creates a pattern of further undesirable behaviour, and you as the parent then miss what is underlying the behaviour, unable to support change towards more positive behaviour.

THE EMPATHY APPROACH

Empathy means to identify and understand another’s situation, thoughts, feelings and intentions. This approach is about showing empathy to your child, to help them to feel heard, calm down and learn empathy themselves.

How you respond to your child when they are upset can build a new positive template for your child for how they understand their emotions and how they deal with stress. If you would like your child to be good at calming themselves down and showing empathy to others, one of the most effective ways to teach them is to model this for them.

If a child’s challenging behaviour is responded to by being punitive, intimidating, or reacting with anger, your child is not able to learn about how to effectively understand and manage their feelings.

Below are helpful ways to respond to your child when you notice they are not feeling good, or when they are showing challenging behaviours.

1. Firstly, model how you would like your child to deal with stress. How do you find yourself responding when facing a challenging behaviour in your child? Making mindful decisions about how you manage your stress will have a big impact on your child; it shows them that this is how mum or dad deals with stress, which they can start to mimic and internalise.

Sometimes parents need time out for themselves to step away from an aggravating situation after a long and tiring day of managing stressful and negative behaviour. Taking some deep breaths, counting to ten, or letting your child know that you need 5 minutes to calm down by going to your bedroom before returning are some ways that parents can take some time out. Let your child know what you are doing (for example, saying, “I need to calm down, so I’m going to make a cup of tea/get some fresh air to make myself feel better, and then come back”). Telling your child that you will return can prevent further escalation especially if they are likely to be triggered by feelings of abandonment or rejection. If your child knows that you will return, they can regain a sense of safety and control, and will be more likely to calm down and listen. When you return to help them manage with their feelings, they will then be more likely to listen and process what you need to teach them. They can also start to learn that everybody gets stressed and needs some quiet time out to calm down.

Calming yourself down and communicating in this way takes practice and can take time to master, especially when you are feeling tired, angry, stressed or worn out by your child’s behaviour. Learning how to keep yourself calm during these times is one of the most important steps in helping your child to also learn how to be calm. Children model their behaviour on what you as their parent do: Your child will begin to see from the way you respond, that this is the appropriate way to calm down when feeling upset. Sometimes even when you are not feeling calm on the inside, doing your best to show non-threatening body language and voice tone is helpful (for example, unclenching your fists, relaxing your shoulders, and dropping your voice to a soothing, lower tone), as children are extremely good at reading non-verbal cues and feeding off them. The bonus with acting calm even if you are not feeling calm, is that you can trick your brain into reducing cortisol (stress hormone) levels in your body, so that you actually then end up feeling more settled down.

If you are using time-out at home, try and think of this approach as time-out for the parent to calm down, instead of time-out as punishment for your child. Instead of sending your child to their room, you, as the parent, model self regulation by taking time-out yourself and showing that you are calming down. Once you are calm, then you can have “time-in” with the child, which will be explained more in the below steps.

calming technique

 

2. When you are feeling calmer, reflect your child’s feelings to them; for example, “I can see that you are feeling really upset/sad/angry/disappointed right now”, to help your child feel heard, understood and comforted. This is the first step of showing empathy to your child. This also helps your child to begin to learn what they are feeling, as you are putting language to their behaviour. They can then start to link their internal state and behaviour to the feeling you reflect to them.

3. If you need to, firmly, but gently let your child know that their behaviour is not okay. If your child is engaging in a behaviour that is unacceptable; for example, if they are hurting another child, let your child know that it is not acceptable to be aggressive with others. It can be useful to address the behaviour, rather than making your reprimand a personal rebuke. For example, saying,“Emily, your brother is NOT for hitting”, names the behaviour and clearly states limits, rather than, “Naughty Emily! You’re so bad for hitting your brother!” which attacks the child, not the behaviour. When you attack the child instead of name the behaviour, they are likely to have a lot more trouble calming down. Similarly, if you are yelling, or showing intimidating body language, your child will have more difficulty hearing you and accepting your limits. Neuroscience tells us that when we are feeling distressed, unsafe, or out of control (which is usually the state people are in when they are aggressive), the parts of our brain that are responsible for listening, processing language and taking in information go offline. For your child to hear you, and understand and accept your limits, they need to be feeling safe and calm.

If you are able to set boundaries with a clear and calm voice, and with a non-threatening body posture, your child will be able to hear you and listen better.

4.  Reflect to your child that they seem to need help calming down, by saying, “I can see that you are out of control at the moment and need help calming down. Let’s help you to calm down together”. This is showing your child that you are not going to punish them or send them away for experiencing difficult feelings; rather, you will invite them to engage in ways of calming down and resolving the problem that feel nurturing. This process is important for setting up a new template for managing overwhelming feelings. For some children, especially those who have experienced trauma, being left alone or being abandoned is a big fear and can cause further escalation, so staying with them, rather than sending them away or ignoring them, will help them to feel safe and to have a better chance of calming down and problem-solving.

Eventually, if you are consistent with this approach, your child will start to learn to take charge of their own emotions and will be able to do this at times more independently.

attachment parenting5. Try using “Time in” instead of time out: Engage your child in a soothing activity that you can do together to calm down, such as drawing how they are feeling, going outside to kick the soccer ball or playing a game. This helps your child to understand what activities make them feel good and calm, and redirects their distress to nurturing themselves. Sending your child to ‘time out’ only works effectively if you have already set up the area as a safe place where they can engage in activities to calm down. Time out does not work if your child is highly distressed and does not have the coping strategies to calm down, or if your child has experienced trauma and may be triggered by feelings of rejection or abandonment. In these instances, time out will only escalate the distress your child is feeling and does not teach them problem-solving skills or strategies for self-regulation.

If there is another child present (for example, a sibling) the ‘time in’ soothing activity can also include them. For example, saying, “we’re all going to do an activity to calm down together, and figure out a way to solve this problem”, will model to everyone that calming down and talking about the problem is an effective method of self-regulation.

6. Try not to “talk things out” when your child is still upset or when you are still upset. Wait until a quieter moment, when the emotion has diffused and you are both feeling calm. When we are in a high state of distress, our brains have great difficulty hearing, taking in information, and learning. We listen and learn best when we feel safe and calm.

Frequently asked questions:

Won’t doing a fun activity with my child when they are misbehaving reward their negative behaviour?

If you are not in the habit of spending quality one-on-one time with your child, then yes, your child may behave in a way that they know will get your positive attention and as a way to connect with you. However, if you spend quality time with your child when they are also doing well, then taking this approach will not reinforce their negative behaviour. It will reinforce positive behaviour and reinforce healthy coping strategies.

You may also find that the more permissive and accepting you are of your child’s feelings (through reflecting the feeling and allowing expression of the feeling), the more accepting your child will be of you setting limits and boundaries around unacceptable behaviour.

How will my child learn consequences if they are not being reprimanded for bad behaviour?

Using The Empathy Approach does not mean that limit-setting, boundaries and natural consequences are not to be implemented with children. This approach works on the premise that children only have behaviour as way to express their feelings. Children do not want to behave badly. If they are behaving badly, they are showing you that they are having trouble coping with their emotions. If you would like your child to feel better, and therefore behave better, it is important to remember that children learn by example. If you would like your child to self-regulate, then modelling emotional regulation by responding to them in a calm manner, and showing your child how they can calm down too, is the most effective way.  Showing empathy to your child, and showing them how to calm down will help your child develop the skills to successfully and more appropriately express and manage their emotions. It will also build a closer and more secure emotional bond between you and your child.

Many parents report to me that The Empathy Approach feels strange at first, that it seems counter-intuitive to be giving positive attention to their child when they are behaving negatively. Other parents feel a sigh of relief to be going with their nurturing instincts and not feeling pressure to “follow through” all the time with punitive responses as a way to curb a difficult behaviour. All parents however, report that over time, when consistent with this approach, they start to notice positive changes in the way that they relate to their child, and the way their child relates to them.

If we can support children to safely explore their feelings rather than simply punish their behaviour, we are teaching them invaluable skills that will last a lifetime. They will learn healthy ways to express their emotions; they will feel comfortable with asking for help; they will have more open and trusting relationships; they will be able to accept both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feelings/parts of themselves which leads to more self-acceptance and self-compassion; and they will have more empathy for other people.

 © Thania Siauw, Psychologist

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