E is for Empathy

It’s a typical evening in a typical house with a typical teen.  Mom asks, as she usually does, “Do you have any homework tonight?”  She’s immediately blasted with, “YES, I have homework!!  That stupid Mrs. Meanteacher gave us like a HUNDRED questions in history, and they’re all due tomorrow!  I hate her!  She’s the meanest teacher in the whole school!  Man, school SUCKS!  Why do I have to go?  I think I just want to quit school and get a job!”  How do you imagine Mom responds?  How would YOU respond?

If I could only share one thing about dealing with teens (or even with grown-ups, for that matter), it would be to learn to use empathy.  Unfortunately, too many times we parents get caught up in thinking we need to turn every incident into a learning opportunity.  Consequently, we would counter the above outburst with an item off of our Menu of Daily Lectures:  1) Respect Your Teacher, or 2) School Is a Privilege, or 3) Watch Your Language, or 4) You Can’t Get a Job Without a Diploma, or 5) The Combo Special  – All of the above, with a side dish of And When You Get Your Homework Done You Need To Do The Dishes.

When faced with an emotional teen, your best tool/weapon/friend is simply an answer slathered in empathy.  To the above outburst you might respond, “Oh, that’s so frustrating, to have that much homework in one night!”  End of response.  Don’t offer suggestions, don’t complain about the language (unless it’s truly profane – we’ll deal with disrespect another time), don’t point out the obvious (that getting started NOW might be a good idea) –  just use empathy.  Figure out the feelings behind the outburst and just show that you understand.  It’s a basic emotional need, to be understood.

If your empathetic response leads to another outburst – “No kidding!  And I still have a math test to study for AND  a stupid paper to write!”  Just answer with more empathy:  “Wow!  That does sound like a lot!”  This is harder than it sounds, because your first instincts are often to try to get your teen to calm down, or to try and come up with a solution to the problem.  But try empathy a few times, and you just might be surprised at the results.  In the best-case scenario, you’ll get a calmer teen who’s now able to be more realistic and to come up with a game plan to deal with the problem.  Best of all, you might just be seen as a parent who actually understands.

(For more info on parenting with empathy, check out loveandlogic.com or the book Parenting With Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline.  It’s powerful stuff!)

1 Comment

  1. I ask my kids, “And what will be a great reward you can give yourself when you finish?” When they think of something…icecream, a movie, or whatever…I offer to “up” the reward, perhaps by icecream AND a movie, if they finish by a certain time (of their choosing). We all love rewards.

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