Too Much Empathy

Understanding what your child is feeling is a wonderful parenting skill. Your empathy can open the heart of a resistant child by assuring her that you care. Showing empathy makes consequences palatable to your kids because it removes any hint of revenge or pleasure over their pain.


There might be a time when too much empathy is in play, however. Feeling a child’s pain helps bond your hearts together. If you feel the pain to the point of agreeing with their faulty logic, you might be exercising too much of a good thing. You can have too much empathy.


Imagine entering the room to a child who is sulking on the floor. “I’m bored,” she says with frustration in her voice. “Oh, honey; let me help you find something interesting to do,” you say. Ouch. Your daughter just transferred her problem directly to your shoulders. Boredom wasn’t your problem until you showed too much empathy. Now if you can’t find something to catch your daughter’s imagination quickly, her boredom will become YOUR fault.


Or consider how you feel drawn into your son’s pain as he relates being bullied at school. You remember that feeling and it goes all over you to think that someone mistreated your son. You search the story for more details and commit to getting to the bottom of this problem for him. After calling another child’s parent and the school a few times, you are convinced that the incident won’t happen again tomorrow. But did you go too far? How will your son learn how to deal with someone who wants to treat him with disrespect?


Many dads feel drawn to fix the problems they hear their children express. It’s what we do. We fix things. If something drops, we reach to pick it up. When we are concerned about the sadness in our child’s eyes, we want to know what is wrong. If there is anything we can do to change a negative situation or put a smile back on our son’s face, we jump at the chance to act. It’s admirable but sometimes it’s too much.


Children need to learn how to find their own interesting solutions to boredom. Boredom is your child’s problem, not yours. It may make you sad or even frustrated but you cannot fix their boredom. How other people treat your child is your child’s problem. You want to prevent mistreatment with every fiber of your being but it will happen when you aren’t looking. Your child needs to learn how to handle his own problems.


Resist the urge to be drawn in to fix every problem you see. Empower your child to fix every problem they can. Their confidence will grow as they overcome their own challenges. Their friendships will increase as they learn to handle mistreatment. Their academic progress will increase as they find books and puzzles and other interesting things to engage.


Try asking what they plan to do about a problem. Listen to their solutions and ask more questions about how their solution might succeed. Ask how a situation made them feel. Nod with understanding but resist the temptation to join them in their emotions. Remember the difference between your problems and their problems.


It’s great that you understand. Your empathy is a blessing. Use it wisely.

Dr. Matt Crain writes weekly for the Sunday newspaper from his Connecting Fathers and Families miniostry.