Helping kids ‘feel felt’

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by admin on May 18, 2010

Alfred Adler, a founding father of psychology, dedicated much of his life and career to teaching empathy to parents, teachers and therapists.  His goal was to teach how to “see with the eyes of another, hear with the ears of another and feel with the heart of another”.  As an Adlerian psychotherapist, this too is my goal.

This week I was thrilled to watch an award-winning video entitled “Children Full of Life” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=armP8TfS9Is&feature=related) about a Japanese teacher who believes the most important thing to teach his students is empathy.  I was impressed by his approach because it embodies what I teach to parents about how to bring out the best in children.  If you have a child in your life, I highly recommend this video.  It will illustrate the deepest needs of children and how, when these needs and capacities are recognized and nurtured the children not only thrive but they work to their greatest capacity.

Empathy is part of emotional and social intelligence (researched and written about by Daniel Goleman).  We know that when a child is secure in his/her family, the part of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence is more developed.  This segment of the brain (the Orbital Frontal Cortex) is responsible for eight functions of emotional intelligence including emotional regulation, the capacity for empathy and moral discipline.  The most important element of emotional security for an infant, child and adult is to “feel felt” (this term and concept comes from Dr. Daniel Seigel, an eminent neuropsychiatrist whose parenting book “Parenting From the Inside Out” explains the science as well as the parenting techniques to help a child to be secure).

Feeling felt is when someone is able to “get you”.  You know the feeling – when you don’t have to explain yourself, you don’t have to defend yourself, someone just knows what is going on inside of you and accepts it and does not fight you or judge you or tell you to think or feel otherwise.  When a parent can do that for a child, the child will feel secure and able to develop his/her own personality, interests and strengths and at the same time have an appreciation for the needs or others.  The greater a human’s capacity to do this, the greater self esteem and level of satisfaction in life.  This does not mean we do not teach our children our values, nor does it mean they can do or say anything they want – it means that you are right there with them when you want to help them learn from you.

Here is an example that may help a little. I have another term for “feeling felt” which might be a little easier to relate to and that is “plugging in”.  When your child is crying, laughing, misbehaving, cooperating … whatever, and you are plugged into what is going on with him/her there is automatically a heightened sense of safety and security in his/her world.

For example, your daughter is whining and being generally annoying.  You know she is tired and she has just come from a sleepover where she has eaten too much sugar.  Getting mad at her would only make matters worse.  Plugging in would mean you would sit with her, cuddle a bit, help her to see that she is a little out of control and why and work with her to come up with some solutions.

Now she feels understood and she herself is able to understand why she is so irritable.  She knows she is cared for and she knows her parent will help her and that she is not alone, and most importantly that she is not in trouble.  This is safe and when we are safe we can venture to learn new things, receive guidance without humiliation, take responsibility for our actions, care about others and the impact we have on their lives, and be motivated to make a difference in the world.

Plugging in takes practice and we all have many opportunities for that kind of practice.  The next time you are upset with someone, step back and try to put yourself in their shoes.  What is this person experiencing?  How does this person see the situation?  What is this person hearing from me?  And, what is this person feeling?

There is not much in this world I can control but I can control how I treat others so that they can feel as safe as possible in my presence.  So dear reader, I invite you to practice with all of your loved ones, and then when you get more confident with that you can start practicing with the people in your life that are more difficult.  Have fun!

This is Susan Prosser’s last advice column for The Low Down.