Are we thinking for parents when they are capable of thinking for themselves?
When a parent comes to you frustrated by their teenager’s (or threenager’s) behavior, where do your thoughts go?
Do you stay with them in their state of frustration or do you immediately go into your own head about how the child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate? Do you even feel a little surge of excitement because you have the perfect strategy that will not only stop the behavior but will help the child develop valuable social-emotional skills? That enthusiasm can feel almost unbearable to hold inside and what spills out is a robust explanation of what’s going on and a solution (or 10) to their problem.
It just feels really good to be helpful. We want to be competent; it’s our job after all. We’ve invested a lot of time and money acquiring knowledge and it’s incredibly validating to share that wisdom with parents. We parenting professionals are a passionate group. We are on a mission to help families thrive, and since we don’t go into the profession for the salary, feeling helpful is often our most valuable reward.
But what happens when we jump at the opportunity to offer our solution?
Even if our suggestion is grounded in evidence-based “best practice,” we end up doing the thinking for parents and, as it turns out, we bypass empathy.
We miss out on the opportunity for both problem-solving and empathy when our approach is focused on what we know and how we can help rather than what parents know or how they can figure out what will help for themselves.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown defines empathy as an emotional skill or practice. Empathy is an act of mentally and emotionally holding space for a parent to have their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Empathy actually supports interpersonal decision-making, which sounds a lot like problem-solving (Brown, 2022).
When we engage with parents through empathy we facilitate an opportunity for parents to think for themselves in a way that strengthens their parent-child relationship rather than easing the challenge of the day.
Self-awareness, perspective-taking, and non-judgment are attributes of the practice of empathy (Brown, 2022).
When we practice these skills with parents, we give them the opportunity to process the challenge they are facing with their child, resulting in empathy skill-building as parents learn how to do things like observing a child’s cues and responding with sensitivity.
As you review your go-to teaching or coaching strategies, they may already be grounded in sensitive, responsive interaction. Your work may also already be focused on supporting children to develop their social-emotional skills, including empathy.
To take things a step further, I invite you to ask yourself this. Does your work focus on explaining how to practice and support the development of empathy with children, or does it use empathy as the process by which we help parents problem-solve and learn about themselves and their children? In other words, are you helping or rescuing?
How do we teach or problem-solve with empathy in a way that helps parents think for themselves?
Just like a shift from over-nurturing to balanced parenting, facilitating empathetic, self-directed problem-solving with parents is not necessarily easy. Parents may expect you to give them the answer because there are content experts giving away direct information everywhere. Maybe the program you’re teaching also holds clear expectations for what information to share as well as when and how to teach it.
The first step is to reflect on your teaching approach and philosophy. How does this concept of “over-helping” resonate with you, the parents you support, and the approach you use to help them? In particular, what do you notice about what happens in your mind and body when a parent asks for help? I encourage you to take some time to journal your thoughts on this.
Next, audit your teaching practices. Consider how they balance information sharing with providing a dedicated and productive space for parents to be present with their own pain, problems, or perspectives. In other words, are parents invited to notice and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings without jumping to evaluation or solution?
Finally, consider how you can incorporate empathetic attributes such as perspective taking, non-judgment, recognition and communication of emotions, and mindful presence into your practice (Brown, 2022). There are a variety of techniques for this, including some things you may already be practicing.
One approach that builds empathy right into its model is the Reflective Dialogue Parent Education Design (RDPED). This non-directive method of Reflective Dialogue may be used as a teaching or coaching tool, for groups or individual parents to promote self-awareness, perspective-taking, reflective thinking, and sensitive, responsive interaction (Thomas, 1996).
New research suggests that the RDPED model also increases self-compassion, clarity in parenting values, and confidence in balancing parent and child needs (Einarsdottir, 2022).
I find that Reflective Dialogue prevents me from over-helping in my own practice by keeping me present with a parent and facilitating a conversation where they can think for themselves and move forward through connection with themselves and their child. It is so inspiring to witness someone coming to their own empowering insight, and more rewarding than any sense of “knowing” the solution has ever offered.
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