Healthy Empathy


Tammy Sassoon

How can parents balance empathy with setting limits? In our quest to give our children what they need we often get confused about how to combine being kind and empathetic with setting limits. First let’s take a look at what healthy empathy looks like, and then let’s discuss how to balance both.

Empathy that Empowers Your Children

Often times very well meaning parents unfortunately bring their children down even more while they are trying to empathize. For example, a child comes home after a long day of school and tells a parent that he hates his teacher who is so mean to him. Mom remembers something she read in a book about the importance of showing your children that you feel with them, so she does the following: She looks at her son with a deeply distressed and insecure face, and says, “That’s so hard! You really hate your teacher.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t send a message to the child that he is perfectly capable of handling this challenge. Healthy empathy would look as follows: Look at your child with a warm confident smile, and say, “Looks like things weren’t fun in that class today.” That warm confident smile empowers the child to experience that while you are trying to feel their pain, you also know very well that he has all the tools he needs inside him to get through ANY challenge in life.

Furthermore, make sure that when you are empathizing you are doing it WITHOUT an expectation from your child to calm down. When children feel that we are empathizing in order to get that result, they feel the vibes of us trying to control a difficult situation, and they become more upset. Let them feel that you are not scared of their feelings and are simply trying to be there with them in their corner. (If you are wondering if you need to actually do something regarding the teacher situation, wait till your son is sleeping to make that decision.)

Setting Limits with Love

Being kind and empathetic is NOT a contradiction to setting limits. Actually, not setting limits is very unkind. I tell my kids from a very young age that I’ll be setting many limits throughout their lives BECAUSE I love them.

When a child is having very strong feelings, the only time we ever need to set a limit is if they are disturbing/hurting themselves or others. The following story happened in a school building a few weeks ago. I was in an office, and I heard a blood curdling scream from across the hall. All the teachers stopped teaching to pop their heads out of their classrooms to check what happened. I ran to the source of the scream, and there stood a sweet little 3rd grade boy, who was crying hysterically because a boy in his class threw up and he was revolted by the smell. I looked at him, and with a warm confident smile said, “Sweetie, in this school the teachers are very kind people, and they would never tell you that you shouldn’t feel your feelings. [Innate Health is part of their curriculum.] Right now you are feeling extreme disgust at the smell. At the same time, you may not disturb an entire building, while you are having strong feelings.” He quickly lowered his voice, and continued to feel without bothering anyone around him. He was welcome to ask a teacher for help or support, but he was not welcome to cross over a limit.

Children need limits! They need to see that we know with 100 percent confidence that they are perfectly capable of following rules. As long as we are kind, we have nothing to fear!