Category Archives: parenting

The Power of Empathy

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions, including their distress.

According to writer and therapist, Dr. Brené Brown, empathy builds connection and communicates to another that “you are not alone.” Sometimes when someone shares something difficult or painful, it can be incredibly difficult. Feeling that one is alone makes it worse.

In Danish schools an hour a week is dedicated to the “Klassens tid”, an empathy lesson for students aged 6 to 16 years. It is a fundamental part of the Danish curriculum. The hour of empathy is as important as the time spent, for example, on English or mathematics. During the Klassens tid students discuss their problems, either related to school or not, and the whole class, together with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children are simply spent the time together relaxing and enjoying hygge, a word (and also a verb and an adjective), which cannot be translated literally, since it is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture. Hygge could be defined as “intentionally created intimacy”.

How is empathy different from sympathy?
Sympathy is primarily about observation and an acceptance that someone else is going through challenging experiences. It can amount to “feeling sorry” for someone, which is an acknowledgment of a situation. It’s not a concept that requires someone to experience the emotion that another person is going through deeply. With this, there’s a natural detachment from the situation.

Four attributes of empathy:
1. Perspective taking. This means trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Oftentimes, to engage in perspective taking, we need to ask questions. “Can you tell me what is going on for you right now?” “What feelings are you experiencing?” Perspective taking can also involve you thinking back to past experiences and remembering what you felt like when you were there. If you have never experienced the same situation this person is describing, you can ask yourself “What might this feel like?”
2. Staying out of judgment. This is when you describe things as neither good nor bad. It also includes not shaming others for having the experience they are having. When someone shares something difficult with us, judgmental questions and comments might arise. Some examples would be, “What was your role in making this happen?” or “I don’t know why you are feeling this way about this.” Trying to fix the situation Instead of listening can also be disconnecting.
3. Recognizing emotion. When practicing empathy, it is important to look to others to learn from and recognize their emotional experience. What are they feeling? What kind of body language are they using that might clue you into what they are experiencing? Do they appear to be overwhelmed at this time or open to talking? Have you seen this person in a similar state before and can that inform how you might approach them now?
4. Communicate emotion. Once we recognize emotion in another person, it can be helpful to let them know that we are seeing them as well as their experience. Saying things like “I see that you are angry” or “It makes sense that you feel this way” are good examples. Communicating that message in the right way makes all the difference. Telling someone “I know what it’s like to feel sad” (or whatever emotion they’re feeling) shows them you understand their emotions. When this happens, the person dealing with the difficult emotions then feels they’re not alone. It’s also important to let the other person speak and not let it become about you in the moment.

Attachment styles and the development of lifelong relationships.

Do you wonder if your child has developed a healthy sense of emotional connectedness to their surroundings? Healthy Attachment lays the groundwork for social and emotional engagement, intellectual and educational interest, and even physical and brain development.

Attachment is emotional communication without words. It represents a relationship that is more than just bonding or feeling close to your child. When your child’s needs were met before they could verbally convey needs, wants, and emotions, attachment develops.

The four types of attachment styles, first researched by the psychologist Bowlby, continue to grow as a very important perspective in developmental psychology.

Secure attachment: These infants and children showed moderate distress upon separation but sought comfort and were easily comforted when the parents returned. They were independent, but loving toward their caregiver in a variety of situations.

Anxious-resistant attachment: A smaller portion of infants experienced greater levels of distress and, upon reuniting with the parents, seemed both to seek comfort and to attempt to “punish” the parents for leaving. This might include getting overtly mad at the parent, or being fractious and grumpy.

Avoidant attachment: Infants in the third category showed no stress or minimal stress upon separation from the parents. They generally ignored the parent. In a series of elegant studies that were videotaped, babies that had avoidant styles literally turned their head away from the parent, because obviously they could not get up and leave.

The disorganized-disoriented attachment style refers to children who have no predictable pattern of attachment behaviors. This has often been linked to a chaotic or abusive environment. (See Kennedy & Kennedy, 2004, for the best description of this attachment style).

Signs of healthy attachment

Connection to Caregiver
1. Your child prefers your company to that of strangers. Your child seeks you out with eye contact, gestures, or physical relocation. While your child can spend time with other people without much anxiety, she looks to you for support, a good indicator that they will have the ability to seek out appropriate social support later in life.

2. Your child looks to you to be comforted. Your child trusts that you know and understand his needs intuitively. She is secure in the knowledge that you are available and willing to be there when a need arises or life becomes scary or uncomfortable.

3. Your child welcomes and engages you after an absence. The mood is positive and accepting when you and your child are reunited after a period of separation. Your child’s disposition is warm, relaxed. He greets you openly.

Connection to Others
4. Your child gives, takes, and shares. The ability to complete these actions habitually, with little upset, are a key sign that social skills are well developed. She is empathetic, and able to remain relatively balanced emotionally throughout social interactions. Communication is reciprocal.
Healthy attachment results in healthy relationships. Current research indicates that our early attachment styles to caregivers, is reflected in our romantic and intimate relationships.
Neural and brain development
5. Your child delays gratification. A child with a healthy attachment is able to wait without becoming anxious, overwrought, or upset. They feel secure that a toy will be returned, their turn will come, or a promise will be honored. This promotes development of the frontal lobe and mental flexibility.
6. Your child is responsive to feedback. Healthy attachment facilitates trust.
Self-Awareness and Control
7. Your child is confidently independent. The beauty of a healthy attachment is that it promotes feelings of safety and trust for your child. At the same time, attachment supports the development of a confident, secure child, ready to explore and adapt to new situations. A securely attached child investigates neighborhoods, schools, new peers, and communities without much fear; secure in the knowledge that they have a safe place waiting for them.

On pandemic and homeschooling

Several of my local school systems as well as private schools in my work in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC have made it known that they are going to have a very limited schedule or no in vivo teaching this fall.

I work with many parents and educators. It’s been an incredibly difficult process, since March, to parent, work from home, do home schooling, manage health concerns, and still try to have quality of life and self care.

I have the deepest respect for the challenges involved. But it’s essential to help children feel safe, keep healthy routines, manage their behavior and build resilience.

Here are some tips to help your children feel safe.
– Address children’s fears directly
Children rely on their parents for safety, both physical and emotional. Reassure your children that you are there for them and that your family will get through this together.

-Answer questions about the pandemic simply & honestly. Talk with children about any frightening news they hear or see. It is OK to say people are getting sick or passing, but say following rules like hand washing and staying home will help your family stay healthy. Explain to them why they may not be able to see their friends easily in a calm fashion. Making things seem like they are falsely positive it’s not helpful for children, because they will know that there is something wrong

-Recognize your child’s feelings. Calmly say, for example, “I can see that you are upset because you can’t have your friends over.” Guiding questions can help older children and teens work through issues. (“I know it is disappointing not to be able to hang with your friends easily right now. How do you think you can stay in touch with them?”)

-Keep in touch with loved ones, friends, and family. Children may also worry about a grandparent or family member who is living alone or a relative or friend with an increased risk of getting COVID-19. Video chats can help ease their anxiety

-Model how to manage feelings. Dr. Siddique calls this emotion coaching. Just like a coach can help you be a better athlete or student, emotions also require practice, feedback, and implementation.

Talk through how you are managing your own feelings. (“I am worried about Grandma or Auntie, since I can’t go visit her. The best I can do is to check in with her more often by phone. I will put a reminder on my phone to call her in the morning and the afternoon until this outbreak ends.”

-Acknowledge compromises. Yes, working from home is hard. I have to make a lot of adjustments. I know mommy is in the study all the time. It’s like being at the office but now it’s here at home. Sometimes when I’m here in the house, I can’t always talk to you. But we will have our time later.

-Tell your child before you leave the house for work or essential errands. In a calm and reassuring voice, tell them where you are going, how long you will be gone, when you will return, and that you are taking steps to stay safe. More than ever, communication matters.

-Look forward with realistic optimism. Tell them that scientists are working hard to figure out how to help people who get ill, and that things will get better.

-Offer extra hugs and say “I love you” more often. Being affectionate matters.

-Keep healthy routines
During the pandemic, it is more important than ever to maintain bedtime and other routines. They create a sense of order to the day that offers reassurance in a very uncertain time. All children, including teens, benefit from routines that are predictable yet flexible enough to meet individual needs. go to bed within a certain time range and wake up at the same time. Model that unfortunate times do not have to create chaos.

-Structure. With the usual routines thrown off, establish new daily schedules. Break up schoolwork and chores when possible. Older children and teens can help with schedules, but they should follow a general order, such as:
Wake-up routines, getting dressed, breakfast and some active play in the morning, followed by quiet play and snack to transition into schoolwork.
Lunch, chores, exercise, some online social time with friends, and then homework in the afternoon.

-As recommended by Dr. Siddique: Fun, food, and family time before bed.
Chat, play, read, or watch a great show. How you complete the day sets the stage for the next one.

-Avoid any physical punishment. Per pediatric research: Spanking, hitting, and other forms of physical or “corporal” punishment risks injury and isn’t effective in any scientific study. Physical punishment can increase aggression in children over time, fails to teach them to behave or practice self-control, and can even interfere with normal brain development. Corporal punishment may take away a child’s sense of safety and security at home, which are especially needed now. They can also manifest and difficult or unhealthy relationships in the future, because people who love you can hurt you.

-Neuropsychology research: Embolden reminds parents and caregivers never to shake or jerk a child, which could cause permanent injuries and disabilities and even result in death.

-Self care. Caregivers also should be sure to take care of themselves physically: eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep. Find ways to decompress and take breaks. If more than one parent is home, take turns watching the children, if possible.

On talking to the kiddos and executive functioning

It’s hard for many people to put the coronavirus global crisis into perspective. It’s even harder to explain it to children. But understanding the big picture can often help us make sense of what’s happening around us.

Some kids—and adults—have a hard time seeing the bigger context in situations. (It’s common with kids who have trouble with executive function.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for kids who get more nervous the more they hear and know.

But for other kids, not understanding what’s going on makes it harder for them to cope. It raises their anxiety level because they don’t always recognize that people are doing things to reduce the threat. 

To help them get a broader idea of what’s happening and be less anxious, start with what they know, says Ellen Braaten, PhD, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) and co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Correct their misconceptions and then help them organize their thinking on the topic,” Braaten says. “Emotions tend to ‘de-organize thoughts,’ so you need to keep things real.

“You could say things like: ‘Scientists predict that this kind of virus can spread quickly. But it can’t spread as much when people stay apart for a while. That’s why you’ll be home from school for a while,’” she says.

It’s important to talk about what you’ll do during the time off. Share how you’ll continue to do things to stay healthy, like washing hands and getting enough sleep. Explain that doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are working very hard to understand how to help people, and they’re doing a good job at it. Emphasize the importance of having a routine.

“To do this, you need to be informed yourself,” says Braaten. “You also need to be able to discuss this in a fairly non-emotional way.”

(Stats from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics).

Parenting and homeschooling, during COVID-19

It’s been a frequent question, how to handle the current situation with regard to kids. In Washington DC, the school systems are closed for at least a month, and I’m thinking longer. This is what I’m telling my patients and families:

1. Establish a routine. This needs to include online schoolwork, chores, exercise, scheduled not random downtime with a preferred activity, and very regular bedtimes and morning routines. You do not get to sleep till 11.

2. This is not a snow day. We can’t live on Doritos, ice cream, and junk food. I am asking all kids nine and above, to help plan and prepare a meal at least once a week for the entire family. This can actually be fun. We all need to cook.

3. Developmentally appropriate information needs to be discussed. From social media to television, we hear bits and pieces that can be very scary. No kid needs to be terrified.

4. Get some outdoor time. It’s spring, and it’s beautiful. Just because we can’t interact, touch or hug, doesn’t mean we don’t get to embrace the sun.

5. Find one cool new hobby or interest to explore. You’ve never had time like this to do that.

6. Don’t forget to check on others. Lack of social contact is one thing, but we have neighbors, relatives, elders, who need our support.

6. Last time, probably most importantly, give each other space. We are used to being at school, the office, sports, activities. Now we are stuck with each other. Annoyance happens.
Find some alone time, for each family member.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.