Empathy is one of those words that is thrown around a lot today. But when we get right down to it, what exactly is empathy? Empathy is the ability to share the emotional state of another person and trying to understand their motives. Or in other words, empathy is trying to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. But it is a little more than that. Empathy is not just a feeling or an emotional response to the plight of another person, rather, it has a multidimensional nature to it including affective and cognitive processes. Empathy means we are trying to put ourselves in another person’s place in an effort to feel what they are feeling, to experience what they are experiencing or to know what they are feeling.

So what has empathy got to do with parenting? Empathy changes the way we parent and changes our relationship with our children. When you are able to cognitively understand and tolerate your child’s perspective the less likely you will become inappropriately angry, aggressive or respond poorly to your child. When you develop emotional empathy it really makes you well-attuned to your child’s inner emotional world.

Empathy also significantly influences the parent-child attachment style. A parent who is well-attuned to their child’s inner emotional world develops a secure parent-child attachment, which is critical for the emotional and psychological health of our children. This is because a secure attachment is really concerned about the protection, care and security of the child. A secure parent-child relationship often predicts:

  • Children being sensitive to the needs of others
  • Emotional stability
  • Being better able to regulate emotions in childhood and adolescence. This protects against developing depression.
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Academic motivation in adolescence
  • Popularity with their peers
  • Greater life satisfaction in adolescence
  • Lower levels of anxiety
  • Less likely to be involved in crime
  • Less likely to attempt suicide
  • Significantly reduced violence, aggression, anti-social and delinquent behaviour
  • Significantly reduced drug and alcohol use and abuse

Whereas children who grow up in homes where empathy is lacking are at greater risk of:

  • Constant anger, defiance and aggression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Developping behavioural problems
  • Avoiding emotional intimacy
  • Higher levels of anxiety
  • Developing phobias
  • Substance abuse
  • Difficulty trusting others

Empathy also guides the way in which we discipline our children. Harsh, punitive discipline tends to breed anger, aggression and poor emotional coping skills. This can place the child at further risk of developing depression and anxiety. Whereas the parent who is emotionally tuned in to their children will use appropriate discipline that won’t crush the child’s spirit.

Why is empathy important for parenting? Because empathetic parents raise well-adjusted, caring, and competent children.