By Ali Hill, PhD
Relationships are powerful. As human beings, our brains are hardwired for connection. We really need other people, and when some of the most intimate aspects of our relationships are shared digitally, the fallout from the loss of that all-important intimacy can lead to fear, sadness and complete devastation.
As parents, conversations about relationship boundaries, sex, and the digital world are some of the biggest and scariest to tackle. For many of us, we just don’t know where to start.
Turns out, there’s a process that can help us figure this out. To create a home life where everyone feels safe enough to speak about these issues. To help us respond thoughtfully to our kids’ questions and needs, rather than react without thought. To have meaningful conversations with our teens about the things that matter most.
We can lay the foundation for having these tough conversations – and so much more – if we commit to building an empathy practice in our lives. Empathy, it turns out, is a real family-dynamic game-changer.
So, what exactly do I mean by an empathy practice?
Well, empathy is about stepping into the shoes of other people, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions. It’s different from expressions of sympathy – like pity or feeling sorry for somebody – because these don’t involve our trying to understand the other person’s emotions or point of view.
When it comes to a sexting situation, even if you never would’ve taken, printed and shared a naked photo when you were a teen, put yourself in your kid’s shoes and think about why (s)he might have done so. Don’t assume you know why this happened. Ask your teen about it and try to understand where (s)he is coming from, even if you are angry and worried.
Think back to your intimate relationships when you were a teen. Take a few moments to remind yourself how your partner made you feel, how important (s)he was to you, and what life was like when the two of you were together. Then use these memories to help you understand your teen’s current situation and keep their feelings and needs at the forefront of your conversation.
Sometimes, empathy is misunderstood as the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The reason this isn’t quite right is that the golden rule assumes that the person you are trying to empathize with would want you to do for them what you would want done for you – it assumes that your interests coincide with theirs.
Ask what you can do for your teen
What empathy really is is more like the “platinum rule” – do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The platinum rule asks us to resist the temptation of projecting our own experiences, views or needs onto others, and to understand them and their needs well enough to do what they want from us, and not just do what we would want from them.
In the case of a sexting situation, ask your teen how you can help. What would make them feel protected and respected, rather than judged? What can you do to help them remedy the situation? There is plenty of time for consequences later on – now is the time to help your teens with their current situation.
Empathy is all about tuning in with yourself and your kids. It’s about thoughtful reflection, deep understanding and careful listening – all of which are critical when you’re having conversations with your teens about the things that matter most.
You Sent a Sext, Now What? (NetSmartz)
Dr. Ali Hill is a mom, entrepreneur, and sociologist who teaches adults the skills they need to understand and manage emotions, strengthen their empathy muscles, and create and sustain relationships with others. She believes that teaching empathy is the key to establishing thriving communities where everyone feels safe, respected, and valued. www.dralihill.com.