Thoughtful Parenting: Empathy essential component in child rearing


Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

“Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” That expression works for adults but not so well for children. How can we possibly walk a mile in our children’s shoes, especially if our children can’t walk?

Thoughtful Parenting

This weekly column about parenting issues is written by local early childhood experts. It publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

How about attunement? Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another's emotional needs and moods. A person who is well-attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state. They are good at recognizing moods and emotions in others and adapting their own response in accordance. Well-attuned parents are important in that they are able to detect what their babies are feeling or thinking and respond appropriately.

Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., has written “Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered,” a book I recommend to any parent who wants to know more about the essential role empathy (or attunement) plays in a child’s development. Perry began his research looking at the negative effects neglect has on a growing child’s brain. Empathy has the opposite effect.

Children who are not developmentally ready to walk and talk need their parents’ empathy in order to develop trust and feelings of safety with their primary caregivers.

A nine-month-old who’s experimenting with standing but falls and hurts herself benefits from her parents’ genuine sympathy and support. Parents can say, “Ooo, that hurt,” and give the child a reassuring hug. The same is true for the three-year-old boy who runs excitedly toward a toy, trips on gravel, falls on his hands and knees and cries. Three-year-olds aren’t much better at self-soothing than nine-month-olds. They need our concern, caring and support.

How does it feel to fall unexpectedly and scrape your hands and knees? Like a bad surprise that hurts. Parents might say, “Really bad owies hurt and scare you. Let’s help you clean up that sore and give you a hug.”

As a devoted Broncos fan, I watch grown men in great physical condition wearing pads and helmets and slamming into each other to win the game and earn their salaries. In spite of knowing all that, I still wince in empathic pain when Emmanuel Sanders gets slammed in midair and sustains a concussion. I can turn off the TV and not subject myself to that carnage. Children cannot escape the bumps and bruises, scrapes and breaks of childhood, nor can they feel safe and understood when their feelings are dismissed, ignored or mocked.

Perhaps the biggest and most exhausting challenge of being a parent is sustaining empathy for our children as they do their best to meet life’s unpredictable events. Giving children the benefit of the doubt, avoiding assuming children’s behavior is meant to annoy their parents and remaining available and empathic to them promotes healthy psychological development.

Empathy does not mean coddling or spoiling; it means being with our children when they need us most, which is the majority of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours — even when they’re screaming and throwing tantrums in the grocery store.

Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, visit her website at She can be reached at 970-879-3032.


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