A pregnant teenager had an argument with her mother. As the mother proceeded to verbally abuse her daughter, the daughter angrily exclaimed “Me feel like tekking a dose a poison.” The mother responded, just as angrily, “Wait deh, me go bring am.”
This exchange exemplifies the communication that frequently takes place in relationships, and that often leads to suicide or triggers abuse, violence and occasionally, femicide.
Empathetic communication is a tool that helps to avoid all of this. It is a great way to diffuse anger, create scope for dialogue and problem solving and allow for mutual respect, understanding and trust. It enables each partner in a relationship to self-express in a context free from fear, threats and eventual violence and shows the other person that s/he is listened to and that his/her inner universe (thoughts, emotions, attitudes, values, etc.) is being understood.
Empathetic communication is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. It enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message/words, and then provide an appropriate, non-threatening, affirming response. Through empathetic communication the listener lets the speaker know, “I understand your problem and how you feel about it. I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.” The effects include building of trust and respect; reduction of tension/conflict; free exchange of information and a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.
In using empathetic communication the listener must be attentive, interested, alert and strive to create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behaviour so that the speaker is neither afraid nor hesitant in communication. The listener must not discount the speaker’s feeling, interrupt the speaker unnecessarily, constantly give advice or lecture the person, criticize or condemn, but must display understanding and sympathy and let the speaker know that together, the issues will be addressed. In effect, empathetic communication is a great modelling tool with which relationships can be placed on firm, functional and compassionate foundations.
“Our kids need to appreciate other people’s feelings they’ll be better friends, romantic partners and parents later,” said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard educator and co-director of the university’s Making Caring Common Project.
So how can parents instil caring, fairness and basic morality in their kids?
“It’s all about modelling,” Weissbourd said. “Almost all kids are morally literate. They know adults have values, but moral identity is the bigger thing. When parents expect something, when parents have high moral standards, such as helping neighbours, modelling fairness, these understandings are backed up.”
These empathy driven traits are even more critical in an age of increasing suicide, teenage pregnancy, rape, incest, alcohol and drug use and physical and verbal abuse increasingly driven by social media. Thus, it is critical that parents relearn use of language that would not alienate their teenagers, make them feel unloved and unwanted, make them act in anger and/or haste or make them feel alone and lonely.
A Time Magazine article titled, Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright, stated that today’s teens are, “The post 9/11 generation… [that] hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.” With the rise of social media, being a teenager today is tougher than any parent could ever imagine. The Time article states, “It’s hard for many adults to understand how much of a teenagers’ emotional life is lived within the small screens on their phones.”
According to the Verywellfamily.com site, teens’ developing brains are extremely vulnerable to so much time online, and because they often have difficulty self-regulating their screen time, risks increase which means they are more susceptible to peer pressure, cyberbullying and sexting. The parenting site also lists the most common mental health-related issues teens can experience from too much social media:
• Low self-esteem
• Sleep deprivation
• Communication issues, or lack of socialization skills for teenagers
Thus, while parents can and must draw on their own experiences as teenagers to better understand their own teens, they should not impose their views about how things should be on their teenagers, since the issues parents faced when they were growing up and the environment of that time are not quite the same as that for their children. Most importantly, parents need to feel any pain and agony their children suffer and let them know that with their parents’ love, care and help, things will get better, no matter what leads to the pain and agony.
The undoubted fact is that counselling works and very effectively so, in most cases. Thus, with respect to relationships, especially if pregnancy is involved, parents must reach out for assistance to ensure that their teenagers are safe. The bottom line is that stuff happens, often times unplanned and unwanted, and everyone makes mistakes as part of the growing-up process.
In fact, even adults continue to make mistakes. So when teens make mistakes, parents and loved ones must understand that it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on and parents must first help their teenagers deal with the consequences of mistakes made, then help them learn from those mistakes and move on in life.
In effect, when that teenager stated that she felt like taking a dose of poison, the mother should have taken a deep breath, rushed to hug her daughter and lovingly caution her to never ever say something like that again. A follow up, “do you know how much we love you”, would also have been the right words to add.
But that desire would not have been uttered by the child in the first place, if, rather than confronting the child and talking to, instead of with the child, the mother had entered the world of her child and seen what her child was seeing; in effect being empathetic. This would have helped the mother to avoid making the assumptions and misjudgments as a result of viewing through her (the mother’s) own lens. Also, the overall interaction would have had a significant impact on the child, and repeated over time, would provide that child with a model for her to internalize and use going forward.
The Caribbean Voice