When discussing consequences with parents and caregivers, the #1 most common question that gets asked of me is: “Isn’t empathy (when a child is behaving inappropriately) just going to reinforce them for this behavior? Isn’t this just giving into them?“
Maybe you’ve wondered this before, too. I understand the concern: if your child is melting down because they have to hand over the iPad, the last thing you want to do is invite this behavior to happen again. And it seems like showing empathy and offering hugs might do just that. If it feels good to them, they’ll have reason to misbehave again, right? Whereas, if we’re strict and tough, the child won’t like that experience, and will be less likely to do that again tomorrow. Right?
Well, no. Don’t get me wrong, there definitely IS such a thing as giving in. And there ARE strategies that can either increase or decrease the likelihood of a frustrating behavior recurring. But I can promise you that being loving and compassionate while your child is having a tough moment is NOT the same as giving in to them. No matter what the reason is behind the meltdown.
Let’s break down the difference:
Compassion may look like:
- Okaying the feeling (“You’re sad/angry/tired/upset/scared. It’s okay to feel that way.”)
- Offering alternatives that YOU deem appropriate (“I’m saying no to the sleepover, but we can watch a movie or play a board game.” Or: “Cookies aren’t for eating before dinner. I’ll put some carrots in a bowl if you need something to munch on.”
- Helping them cope through big feelings (“Would you like a hug?” Or: “When you’re angry, it’s okay to squeeze the pillow or hit it.”
Meanwhile, giving in looks like:
- Letting them have (or do) the thing you originally said no to.
Validating someone’s feelings and offering alternatives never reinforces a tricky behavior. By doing that, you 1) give them practice at verbalizing their own feelings, 2) teach them healthy coping skills, and 3) establish a connection with them so they’ll be more likely to cooperate.
Let’s talk about it from an adult perspective. If you feel disconnected from your partner and seek attention from them in unhelpful ways, doesn’t it feel better when they respond to you with understanding? Even if they can’t meet your need in the moment or have to set a boundary, a simple “Can we talk about this later?” hits us differently than when they completely shut us down. Your relationship feels more secure, and as a result, you’re more likely to use more helpful communication strategies in the future. Kids are no different.
Another way to tell the difference between compassion and giving in is by checking in with yourself. I find that giving in feels exactly like giving up. It happens out of frustration, exhaustion, or a lack of confidence in yourself to hold the boundary. On the other hand, when we show compassion (but stick to the limit!!), it might feel new and strange, but it comes from a greater place of calm. Or at least, it should.
I’ll leave you with some examples of both so you can get more familiar with the difference:
Compassion looks like: “You’re disappointed that you can’t have a cookie before dinner. Would you like carrots or cherries for a snack instead?” Giving in looks like: “Okay, fine, you can have a cookie before dinner just this once.”
Compassion looks like: “I know it’s tough for you to put away the tablet. I have trouble turning off screens too, sometimes.” Giving in looks like: “Alright you can have FIVE more minutes, but then that’s it! I mean it this time!”
Compassion looks like: “It’s okay to be angry at me for saying no to the sleepover.” Giving in looks like: “Okay, okay, I’m tired of your complaining. You can go.”