Getting In Tune: Using Empathy to Connect within the I.D.E.A. Strategy (Part 4 of 5)

byJoshua Metz, LCSW

I.D.E.A. (which stands for Investigate, Describe, Empathize and Act), is a parenting strategy that I’ve developed to help parents deal with challenging behavior, episodes of distress, or situations that impact the daily flow of life. With I.D.E.A., parents can be more thoughtful in their approach to their children, be less reactive and more reflective in what they do, and turn what could be just another tantrum or fight into an opportunity to teach your child how to take in a situation, figure out what is going on, look at it from different perspectives, and come to a more informed decision.

Part 1 summarizes the I.D.E.A. strategy. Part 2 discusses the first step – INVESTIGATE.Part 3 provides more details about the DESCRIBE step of the I.D.E.A. Strategy. And in this Part 4 we get in tune with EMPATHY and its use within the I.D.E.A. strategy.

Let’s start with the question: What is empathy? Empathy is defined by the World Book Dictionary as “understanding and entering into another’s feelings.” Empathy is walking a mile in another person’s shoes. Empathy is getting in tune with another person’s emotional state. Empathy is “getting it” when someone shares something meaningful.

For our I.D.E.A. strategy, empathy is the important step between “Describing” what is going on (the non-judgmental description of what you see and hear so that everyone is on the same page about what is happening in the moment), and the final step of “Acting” and doingsomething. Providing your child with an empathetic response to his/her distress in the moment creates an environment of attuned understanding that takes the “You” and “Me” and creates a “We”. Infusing the interaction with empathy helps the child feel understood and validated, instead of called out, judged, and maybe even backed into a corner.

Picture a child in the car joining you for some routine errands, whining about wanting to get more “Kaleidoloop Bands” at the store because she needs the new glowing ones (even though you already said that this trip was a “treat free zone”, you’ve got to respond. You’ve been here before so you know this is an expected pattern of behavior. You describe the situation (“You’re asking for new bands when we get to the store”). After the child confirms that you’re hearing her correctly, you move on to providing an empathetic response, such as, “You really love those bands, and now there are new ones that you want. But I said no treats. That sounds frustrating”. By looking at the situation from the child’s point of view, you help the child feel that her point of view is valid, understood, and worthy of your consideration. You also help to give words to the child’s emotional state (the emotion is called frustration). A non-empathetic response might be, “Stop with the bands! I said not treats this trip. Knock it off or we turn around”. Not much to work with there, and potentially the fires of a major meltdown has just been fanned.

Now let’s be clear about what we’re doing when we provide an empathetic response to the child. An empathetic response does not mean that you the parent are giving in and taking your child’s side. It’s not a white flag of defeat. Instead it’s an opportunity to build on the previous step (Describe). Once you’ve described what is happening and there is some back and forth with the child about what is happening, you can now let your child know that you understand what is happening from his/her point of view. The statements you make about what the child is feeling reflect that you are looking at the situation from your child’s perspective, and that it is important. Not only does everyone now know what the problem is, the meaning behind the problem is brought forth to become part of the solution.

There are many benefits to using empathy with your child, but before I talk about a few of those, let’s briefly look at some of the mechanisms in the brain that allow for empathy. The researcher and clinician Daniel Siegal has written extensively about the brain. In The Whole Brain Child (co-authored by Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.), we learn that the brain is a social organ. It is designed to operate within a social environment. There are specific brain mechanisms that help to support the process of going from “Me” to “We”. They are calledMirror Neurons, and they help the brain make sense of the social signals that are sent back and forth between two people. Mirror Neurons are what’s in play when you see someone smiling and you start smiling back – your mirror neurons are helping you understand what the other person’s upturned face and grinning mouth means. And when you can absorb what the other person looks like, it helps you understand what the other person is feeling. We “feel” the other person’s “feelings.” That’s empathy. And if you think about it from this perspective (that the brain is paying attention to what it sees as much as what it hears), you can see that empathy is also about what’s not being said – the non-verbal signals that are sent through our faces, our bodies, and our movements.

So what comes from these mechanisms in the brain that help us feel the feelings of others. What’s the benefit to your child when you use empathy? Here are few ways that teaching and promoting empathy with your child helps:

  1. Empathy highlights and enhances the emotional connection between your child and you. The term often used is attunement, and it means bringing into harmony. When you pause in the I.D.E.A. and provide an empathetic response, you’re strengthening the attunement you have with your child. When you “get them” and share their distress, they feel validated and understand that their feelings are important too.
  2. Empathy teaches the importance of relationships by amplifying the emotional component of the relationship. It’s not all about do this and don’t do that. It’s not just following the rules and routines of being a parent or a child. Emotions are an important part of any relationship. And the closer the relationship, the more that emotions are at the center of the action and interaction.
  3. Empathy teaches perspective taking, one of the most important social skills children and adults of all ages needs for success. Taking perspective is another way of saying seeing things through the lens of another person. And when you can do that effectively, you gain flexibility in adapting to different social situations. For example, if you can see (i.e. perceive in your mind) that the person behind the coffee counter is frustrated with the machine that isn’t working (thanks mirror neurons), you might be a little more patient and kind in your request for that mocha half-caff soy late mint espresso. When you empathize with your child by making statements that take his or her perspective, you’re providing just the practice they need for future social success.
  4. The language that you use in making an empathetic statement to your child is teaching him or her an emotional vocabulary. Giving words to feelings helps children (and adults for that matter) learn what all those physical and mental sensations are called. And if you can name, you can tame it.
  5. By infusing empathy into an interaction, you’re helping to promote the integration of thoughts with emotions, providing a richer and more fulfilling experience. It’s not just what is said. It’s also about how it’s said, and why it’s said, and what the meaning is behind the words. And within the I.D.E.A. model, Empathy comes after describe for an important reason. Before any solutions are offered, we want to take some time to integrate thinking (what has been described without judgment – just the facts) with feelings (acknowledging that feelings are important and should be expressed). Now we have all the necessary components for our final step, Acting.

So one can see that there are many benefits to teaching and promoting empathy with your child. And when empathy is followed by a non-judgmental description of the facts of the case that all agree on, both your child and you a) are on the same page, b) attuned to another and mutually validated, and c) ready to take some even-tempered, thoughtful action to solve the problem.

Next month is the final installment of this series, where I will talk about the final step in I.D.E.A.: Act. In the meantime, feel free to send along any questions, comments or feedback to