Learning to develop the ’empathy reflex’ as a parent


When you’re pregnant, your brain plays tricks on you. I’ve had my fair share of “pregnancy brain” moments and have been curious as to why pregnancy causes women to be more forgetful and absentminded than usual. The related research I’ve read has helped me realize that pregnancy brain is a real (and normal) symptom. It has also taught me the importance of empathy in parenthood.

When you’re pregnant, a surge in hormones affects neurons in the brain, grey matter increases, and your spatial memory gets altered. As a result, you become more forgetful and distracted.

“It’s not reasonable to think that a woman could go through all the hormonal and physical changes of pregnancy and not have it affect her brain just as it affects her body,” neurologist Louann Brizendine and author of “The Female Brainrecently told TIME Magazine. The article went on to make another important point: “At the same time … a pregnant woman’s brain doesn’t become somehow deficient or less capable.”

Despite the less appealing neurological changes, the brain also undergoes changes that better prepare women for motherhood. Regions of the brain that control empathy, for instance, experience an increase in activity during pregnancy.

I tend to experience empathy the most when I’m with my husband Troy. Earlier this year when we were on a trip in North Carolina, Troy thought it would be fun to touch an electric fence at a goat farm we were visiting. The inquisitive daredevil that he is, he wanted to see what would happen. As he touched it, I experienced what felt like a shock run through my body. Troy didn’t get shocked, but my body nonetheless reacted as though he had. When he’s ostensibly in pain, I feel that pain. When he’s happy, angry, frustrated, I feel those emotions too.

I have no doubt this empathy will carry over into my role as a mom. In the book, “Brain Rules for Baby,” author John Medina encourages parents to embrace what he calls the “empathy reflex.” Rather than jumping to conclusions about why someone is doing something, he says, try to imagine what they must be feeling in that moment. Medina encourages couples to develop the empathy reflex amongst themselves so that they can embrace it once they’re parents.

“The most common source of conflicts is the gap between a person’s unknowable intentions and observable behavior,” Medina writes. “That gap can be bridged by empathy.”

So how do you develop an empathy reflex as a parent? It takes practice. One way to start (so I’m told) is to try to understand what your child must be thinking and experiencing so that you can better understand her actions. Kids often throw tantrums because they’re feeling a certain way and they don’t know how to verbalize it. As parents, you can label the feeling for your children and, in doing so, teach them to acknowledge their feelings.

So, say for instance your 2-year-old daughter is sobbing because she wants her favorite teddy bear but can’t have him because you’re out running errands. Instead of yelling at her to stop crying, it’s better to say something like: “I know you must really want your Teddy, and you’re probably feeling frustrated that you can’t play with him. I wish I could give you Teddy right now, but I can’t. We’ll be home soon enough and you can cuddle with him then.”

Empathizing with your child calms them down, Medina says, because it signals that you understand and that you care. Medina has found that parents who empathize with their children and who have a “demanding but warm” parenting style raise happier kids.

You don’t need to have all the answers to empathize with your child; you just have to try to understand them. I’m guessing you need a fair dose of patience, too.

I’m sure there will be times when I lose my patience and when the empathy reflex will be the last thing on my mind. I’m going to try my best, though, to embrace empathy and equanimity — and to approach motherhood as an invitation to me my best, imperfect self.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

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