Every child, and adult, experiences anxiety, regularly. For some it is a fleeting experience, felt relatively rarely. But for most of us, children included, anxiety is a more common day-to-day experience … And we can easily find ourselves on a slippery slope of anxiety, and begin to feel afraid, and wary, of many things, and often.
When a child is beginning to feel anxious at every turn, parents are often understandably unsure of how to support them with this. Parents are often worried that something they say might make their child’s anxiety worse. They also commonly report that they’ve tried lots of ways of respond to their child’s anxiety, and that nothing they say or do seems to make a difference …
But there is one superpower that every parent can develop, which can absolutely support their children with their anxiety, and help their children to live a full life, despite their anxieties.
That superpower is empathy.
When we hear the word ‘empathy’, a lot of us think - “Oh, empathy, that’s easy - I know empathy, I do empathy”. But when we get down to the actual definition of empathy, many of us actually have a different idea of empathy from the one referred to in the emotional health research. And even when we do get the definition right, many of us don’t realise that we can always improve our empathy skills, even when we do already do it well - Empathy is a skill and a practice - It is a set of behaviours, which can be taught, and then always honed, and developed further.
For example, in regards to the definition of empathy - Did you know that empathy and sympathy are actually very different concepts? Most of us conflate these two ideas, and use the terms interchangeably, but empathy is not sympathy, and this is a very important point.
In a nutshell - Empathy is ‘feeling with’ someone, and sympathy is ‘feeling sorry for’ someone. And importantly for parents - Empathy is supportive, and connecting, while sympathy creates disconnection between people. We now know that people feel better in the context of empathy, and often feel worse in the context of sympathy. So if you are offering sympathy, then quite contrary to your intention, your child’s anxiety is likely to get worse, not better …
There is a great short animate clip that brilliantly shows the different meanings of these often-confused words, and shows how important it is for us to use empathy, not sympathy, when we are trying to support someone. You should find this clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw (*If the link ever expires, then type “Brené Brown empathy RSA” into google, and you should find it at its new home!).
Doing empathy well didn’t come naturally to me at first - I had to learn it, and I have to keep practising this skill every day. And I frequently get it wrong, and need to circle back, and apologise and try again. So I watch and re-watch this clip often, and it really helps me to keep in mind what empathy is, and how to do it in the moment.
Another concept that is often confused with empathy is reassurance, and reassurance (contrary to popular belief) is actually as disconnecting and unhelpful as sympathy. When we are feeling upset, people often offer reassurance - They might say something like: “Oh it’s not that bad”; “Its not as bad as it seems”, or “Come on, cheer up, you’re great, you’ll be fine”. I one hundred percent believe that anyone offering reassurance absolutely means well, and is wanting to support you.
However, despite their best intentions (and you’ll know this if you think back to a time when you’ve been really upset, or anxious, and you’ve given reassurance), their reassurance is likely to make no impact on your original upset feelings at all, and on top of that, is likely to add a sense that you shouldn’t feel upset, and that there is something wrong with you for feeling upset in that situation … And then this is a recipe for us to feel another uncomfortable feeling - The feeling of ‘shame’ - feeling alone in our pain, and feeling that there is something wrong with us for feeling what we do, or being who we are. Knowing the difference between empathy and reassurance is therefore very important to effectively support people, including your children, with their feelings.
I recently wrote more about the power of empathy for Support Local’s Online Magazine. The article describes what anxiety is, and whether it is normal; and it described what empathy is, and what it is not. I also give some examples of what to say, and what not to say, when your child is anxious, to ensure you’re responding with empathy in those moments.
Click on this link, and head to that article, to read more: