How to Use Empathetic Parenting to Meet 3 Big Challenges

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do your children ever throw tantrums? Do they fight with each other? Are they scared or anxious sometimes?

Dr. Becky Kennedy discusses the importance of empathy in parenting in her book Good Inside. She identifies common parenting challenges and explains how you can use empathy as a tool to deal with tantrums, sibling rivalry, and kids who are fearful, anxious, or crying.

Keep reading to understand the power of empathetic parenting and how you can use this practical tool with your children.

Empathetic Parenting

Validation and empathy provide a foundation from which to build your child’s emotional self-regulation. Validation means confirming that what your child is feeling is real, which helps them regulate their emotions because they receive confirmation that their experiences are legitimate even if they’re difficult. Empathy means trying to understand your child’s feelings and making space for them to experience and express those feelings. Empathetic parenting lets your child know that they’re not alone in their feelings. 

For example, you can tell your child, “You have a lot of energy right now, and you’re feeling antsy. You’d rather run around than sit at the table, but we need to be safe while we’re eating. I felt antsy this morning at work. I had to sit at my computer but what I really wanted to do was go for a walk outside.” And when your child gets upset because you ended lunchtime, you can say, “You’re allowed to feel upset. You wish you could run around and still get to eat—I understand that. I won’t let you run around while you’re eating, but you’re allowed not to like it.” 

Validating and empathizing with your child’s experiences means you can see and hear their emotions and perspectives without trying to convince them to change how they feel or think. But it doesn’t mean you relinquish your authority. Kennedy is adamant that both realities can coexist: your perspective and your child’s. You can enforce boundaries you know are necessary to keep your child safe, and your child can be allowed to feel frustrated by them.

Emotional Intelligence Is Learned at Home

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains that family is the first place we learn about emotions and how to handle them, but some parenting styles harm children’s emotional development. Parents who ignore their children’s feelings instead of validating them, or who treat their emotions with contempt instead of empathy, lead children to believe emotions are inconveniences. On the other hand, parents who are too accepting acknowledge their children’s emotions but don’t teach them acceptable and healthy ways to deal with them. They relinquish their authority and let their children’s emotions take over situations, which denies kids the opportunity to learn healthy self-regulation.

Similar to Kennedy’s emphasis on validation and empathy, Goleman argues that parents who address emotions healthily:
• Take their kid’s feelings seriously and try to understand them
• View emotional moments as opportunities to coach their kids through what to do
• Offer up positive ways to deal with emotional reactions
• Practice these three steps in relation to their own emotional moments as well

Challenge #1: Tantrums

Kennedy explains that tantrums are episodes in which a child is feeling emotions more powerful than what they’re able to process, and they become dysregulated as a result. Tantrums aren’t misbehavior—they’re a moment where your child’s body gets out of their control. They’re important for your child’s development because they shape the foundation of them knowing what they want and being able to ask—and, if necessary, fight—for what they want.

To help your child learn to regulate her emotions without squashing her emerging will and assertiveness, work with the underlying urge. Kennedy explains how to use empathy as a tool in this context.

Ensure that you’re calm and have perspective on the situation. Kennedy urges you to remember that your child’s meltdown is developmentally appropriate and not a reflection of your parenting. (Shortform note: You and your child benefit from looking at the bigger picture when big feelings are taking place. The authors of The Whole-Brain Child suggest reminding your child that emotions are temporary and helping her recall a recent time when she was happy. That being said, Kennedy warns against trying to fight a tantrum with logic because emotions will always win out inside a child’s developing brain. Instead, use these reminders to keep yourself regulated during the tantrum, and share them with your child when she’s calmer.)

Aggressive Tantrums

Sometimes, Kennedy says, tantrums become aggressive if the feelings are so intense that the child becomes frightened at her own loss of control. The stress hormone cortisol floods her body and sets off aggressive behavior like kicking or biting. Aggressive tantrums are also developmentally normal, but they need a different approach.

Kennedy recommends using validation and empathy when your child’s tantrum takes an aggressive turn. She suggests that, after the tantrum, once everyone is calm, you should talk about what happened with your child to validate her experience and show her how she eventually rode out the tantrum. Narrate to your child what triggered the tantrum, how she felt, what her body did, and what you both did until her body regulated.

(Shortform note: Encouraging your child to remember things—even unpleasant things—has an additional benefit. In The Whole-Brain Child, the authors argue that processing experiences avoids unintegrated memories—fragments of unresolved thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Unintegrated memories can create anxiety around everyday activities, injure your child’s self-confidence, and impede her ability to trust others.)

Challenge #2: Sibling Rivalry

Sibling relationships can be challenging for children and elicit unwanted behavior, such as fighting or whining. Kennedy argues this is because siblings can feel threatening to a child’s attachment needs since they can see your attention going to someone else. The difference in abilities and in the parental involvement other siblings require can also be frustrating to children. Kennedy recommends using empathy to help your children manage the emotions that sibling relationships generate.

Give your children the opportunity to complain about their siblings to you—just not in the presence of the aggrieving sibling. Kennedy says that this will give them an outlet for their emotions without harming the relationship between them. Don’t let the complaining turn into name-calling, as this is dangerous and destructive.

(Shortform note: Sometimes, a child simply needs more time and attention, and it can cause her siblings to feel invisible. For example, siblings of children with medical needs can become “glass children” when their parents become overwhelmed with the needs of the other child and “see through” the other children. To avoid this, experts recommend sharing a journal with her and connecting her with other young people in similar situations to help her see she’s not alone. These can be safe spaces for her to vent safely and feel that others empathize with her situation.)

Challenge #3: Fearful, Anxious, & Crying Kids

Fears, anxiety, and crying—even “fake” crying—are expressions of vulnerability. Kennedy explains that when children perceive a threat, their bodies feel fear or anxiety. When they feel sadness, they cry. When they feel disconnected from their caregivers, they pretend-cry to secure that connection.

Kennedy argues that parents often shut down these expressions of vulnerability because they trigger uncomfortable feelings related to their own vulnerability. You might try to convince your child to stop being sad, anxious, or afraid, or even shame her for feeling that way. But this teaches her that these feelings are wrong and to be avoided, which leaves her unprepared for real life. Instead, support her through those feelings so she develops the tools to work through them in the future.

Kennedy explains how to use confidence-building, validation, and empathy to help your child learn to work through her vulnerable feelings. She recommends that you start by naming the feelings your child is experiencing and letting her know that it’s okay to feel them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, help her brainstorm strategies to deal with a fear or anxiety, and practice the strategies with her when you know a challenging situation is coming up. Share similar feelings you’ve had in the past and how you worked through them. Let her know you’re glad she’s sharing this important information with you.

(Shortform note: As your child matures, you might introduce new strategies to help her build her confidence to face her fears with logic while still empathizing and acknowledging that her fears are valid. One strategy to consider is Tim Ferriss’s “fear-setting,” which he describes in The 4-Hour Workweek. To fear-set, you write down your fears, the worst-case scenario that might result from them, and potential solutions to deal with them.)

How to Use Empathetic Parenting to Meet 3 Big Challenges

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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