Friday, February 5, 2016

Empathic Parenting: Connect Emotionally with Your Child


Image Credit: flickr[dot]com/photos/stephanski/

In Islam, it is the right of every child to be treated with kindness, mercy and fairness. Although there are many parenting styles, many Muslims are not aware that showing emotional understanding towards children will help them become more cooperative, mature and confident people. In this article, I will be sharing the benefits of empathic parenting, as well as practical steps to connect emotionally with your children.

What is empathic parenting?

Empathic parenting is based on the desire to raise individuals who are caring, compassionate and empathetic. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions of another. The basic principle of empathic parenting stems from children’s ability to mirror the actions and qualities of the people around them. So, when children are surrounded by people who are respectful and calm, they will also take on these traits. This article will explain five benefits of empathic parenting and three ways to become a more empathic parent, in sha Allah. There is also a wealth of information on empathic parenting on websites and YouTube, where I also obtained my research.

But first and foremost, it was our beloved Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) who taught us this quality.

Look up to our role model

Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was kind, loving and compassionate with all children, including his daughters, grandchildren and servant. Ahadith and stories in this regard abound in the seerah, and these are just three of them:

1. “Allah’s Messenger ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) kissed his grandson Hasan when a man named Al-Aqra was sitting with him. Al-Aqra said, “I have ten children and have never kissed one of them.” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) looked at him and said, “Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.”” [Al-Bukhari]

2. The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “Treat your children fairly, treat your children fairly.” [Sunan An-Nasa’i]

3. Narrated Umm Khalid: I went to Allah’s Messenger (as a child) with my father and I was wearing a yellow shirt. Allah’s Messenger said, “Sanah, Sanah!” (sanah meant “good” in the Ethiopian language). I then started playing with the seal of prophet-hood (between the Prophet’s shoulders) and my father rebuked me harshly for that. Allah’s Messenger said, “Leave her.” The Prophet, then, invoked Allah to grant her a long life thrice, “Wear this dress till it is worn out and then wear it till it is worn out, and then wear it till it is worn out.” (The narrator adds, “It is said that she lived for a long period, wearing that (yellow) dress till its colour became dark because of long wear.”) [Al-Bukhari]

The importance of caring about a child’s feelings is clear from these ahadith. In the third hadith, the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) showed empathy to a little girl by understanding her innocence in playing with his seal of prophet-hood, and even prayed for her to have a long life. It is without doubt that Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was the most merciful to children, whether or not they were his own. This is the greatest indication that we need to incorporate such mercy and kindness when raising our own children.

Remember, there are many benefits of raising good Muslim children. If our children are kind and empathic, in sha Allah, they will also pray for us, as the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said:

“When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity), a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased).” [Muslim]

Five Benefits of Empathic Parenting

Showing your child that you understand their emotions will reap the following benefits, in sha Allah:

1. Your child will learn to control his/her emotions and be calm during stressful times

When you emotionally connect with your child, he/she will feel “safe” with you. Feeling emotionally “safe” helps children learn to control their emotions.

A time when I saw the results of this was when my 5 year-old daughter, Fatima, was recently bitten in the leg by a dog while playing outside. Alhamdulillah, she was wearing thick jeans and the bite did not puncture her skin. My neighbor informed me about the attack and said that she was impressed by Fatima’s calmness. After the dog went away, the neighbour asked Fatima if she was alright. Fatima said, “I’m okay. I just got a little scared.” The neighbour was more shaken up by the attack than my daughter! I thanked Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and knew that my practice of empathic parenting helped Fatima stay calm in a situation that would be scary for a child.

2. Your child will be a more confident person

Empathic parenting creates self-esteem within a child, as they are developing in a nurturing, caring and supportive environment. “Mirroring” what your child is feeling by verbally naming his/her feelings, fosters bonding with your son/daughter and builds their self-confidence, as you are validating them and reassuring them that their emotions do matter.

Here are example of mirror phrases, which show that you care about your children’s thoughts and emotions.

  1. “If I hear you correctly, what you are telling me is…?”
  2. “Did I get it right?”
  3. “Is there more you want to say about this?”

We will go into more detail about mirroring later on.

3. You will optimise your child’s brain development

Current research shows that emotional bonding is the foundation of brain development because it increases neuron connections in their brains. Parenting expert Dr. William Sears cites numerous studies that show that the two most important enhancers of a child’s brain development are the quality of the parent-child attachment, and the response of the caregiver to the child’s emotions.

4. You will experience a happier family atmosphere

Empathy builds trust. Your child will feel more comfortable sharing his/her feelings with you. Additionally, when children feel that their feelings are valued, they will naturally want to please you, because it feels good for them to be “heard”.

5. You will understand the deeper reasons for your child’s misbehaviour

If a child is misbehaving, it is because he/she feels threatened by something, or has an emotional need like engagement or attention. Empathy from parents helps children feel safe; when children feel safe, they are able to understand the world better and make better decisions. Ultimately, when you understand how children feel, you will see the meaning behind their behaviours and you can react accordingly.

An example of this is when I worked with a young student with learning difficulties. He would yell and throw objects when he didn’t understand a math problem. I showed empathy by asking how learning math made him feel, and he admitted that he misbehaves because he feels stupid. When I understood the feeling behind his behavior, I was able to assure him that he was not “stupid” and that many people struggle with learning math. My empathy made him feel calm and he was able to continue learning more comfortably.

Empathic parenting in action: 3 techniques

Now that we have seen how empathic parenting can benefit our children, let’s look at three ways we can implement this in our homes.

1. Exercise self-empathy

Empathic parenting helps your children manage their feelings. As parents, you first need to be able to do this yourself.

Self-empathy means that you are aware of your own feelings and listen to yourself. Your ability to empathise with your child depends on your ability to empathise with yourself. An example of practising self-empathy is by consciously finding ways to cope and change your emotional state when you are not calm and are in a stressful situation. This could be by reciting dhikr, making dua to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), talking to a caring person or engaging in enjoyable activities to calm you down. Your children will be able to see how you respond in difficult situations, helping them react in a similar way.

Remember your long-term goal as a parent: raising a child who will be a productive Muslim. When you remember the “bigger picture”, it will help you to react better to immediate problems.

A counselling technique I often recommend is to try to remember yourself as a child. When you establish an empathic connection to yourself as a child, this helps you empathise with your children. Additionally, try having a family empathy circle, where members sit in a circle and one person shares his/her thoughts. Then each member reflects back what he/she heard until the original speaker feels fully understood. This shows that the feelings of both adults and children are equally important.

2. Focus on the relationship

Empathy is the key to building a positive relationship with anybody, as it is a form of love, generating a feeling of “you and me” and togetherness. In addition, empathic parenting is also about creating structure and solving problems together. Setting rules and boundaries for children helps them understand their world.

Research has shown that the quality of a relationship between the helper (the parent) and the person receiving the help (your child), is the most important factor to predict whether or not the person will improve. So reflect on the kind of relationship you have between yourself and your children, and judge whether this is teaching your children compassion and empathy. Then reflect on what kind of relationship you want to have with your children and use that as your motivation for empathic parenting.

3. Learn to “mirror” your child’s emotions

This is perhaps the most important aspect of empathic parenting, especially if you find your children behaving badly. We all have a need to be validated, and this is no different in children. As parents, we may often undermine a child’s behaviours or thoughts by calling them “silly” or “immature”. However, when you mirror a child’s emotions by reflecting back what he/she has said to you, this encourages children to talk more about their emotions and boosts their self-esteem. As a result, your child will become calmer and more mature.

Here are three E’s which you can use:

Encourage a solution: If your child is misbehaving, rather than telling them they cannot do something, encourage your child to come up with a more acceptable solution of their own. For example, if they want to snack before dinner, you could say: “I put away the biscuits because we are having dinner in a little while. If you are very hungry, why not choose a healthier snack instead?”

Empathise with their feelings: State the logic of your child’s point of view by saying: “I understand how you are feeling” or “given all that you have said to me, I can imagine you must be feeling…”

Explain your reasons and feelings: Finally, empathic parenting does not mean sacrificing discipline; you are simply explaining the reasons behind a rule or command rather than just telling them they cannot do something.

When you set boundaries and say “no” to your child, your child will probably feel frustrated. Mirror this frustration by saying that you understand he wants something he cannot have and validate your child’s frustration. Stand by your rule, but let your child know that you understand how he feels.

Being an empathic parent takes time and patience, but the rewards last a lifetime. In sha Allah, your child will sincerely love you for taking the time to understand him or her, even when you disagree on something. By trying to implement even some of these tips, you will encourage both compassion and maturity within your children. In sha Allah your child will pray for you out of this sincere love, which will be a continuous source of blessings for you, even after your death.

After reading this article, would you consider yourself an empathic parent? What are some changes you plan on making to the way you treat and discipline your children? Feel free to share with us any examples where this parenting style has worked and any tips you have for other parents/caregivers. 

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