The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.

Some people are more empathetic naturally than others. For some empathy is very difficult. 

We usually find it easy to be sympathetic to ones situation but to be truly empathetic is another level of comprehension. 

When we are empathetic we can identify with or truly understand someone else’s perspective, experience or motivation. Often because we have experienced this already or have similar motivations or perspectives. 

However when it comes to foster parenting it can be hard to empathize with a bio parent for example. It can be hard to be empathetic for a child in foster care who is going through difficult trauma behaviours simply because we have never walked a mile in their shoes. 

But I believe to be a truly great foster parent that you need to develop the personal skill of empathy. That is the good news it can be developed when we are intentional about it. 

How to we develop Empathy?

I think the easiest way we can do this is simply by asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers. So often we talk to have conversation but we miss connections or experiences the other person is communicating. Ask questions about their childhood experiences, adversities they have faced, differences in culture and religion. 

I remember so clearly one of the conversations I had with one of the bio moms of the kids I cared for. She told me how she basically raised herself, her parents had abandoned her to her own devices at a young age. Then she started sharing with me about her romantic relationship history and it was no wonder she was struggling with being able to parent her child. 

This was my first experience from turning from the thought of these bio parents are horrible and have done horrible things to these kids to these people are really struggling and they don’t have the type of childhood history I had or people around to support them. They truly don’t know better.

Another way to develop empathy is to check your biases. We all have them based on our upbringing, culture, religious beliefs etc. We all look at our world through a different lense. A lense that has been developed by our specific life experiences, of course my lense is going to look different growing up as a female in Canada with a great childhood who was given many privileges. 

So much problem with racism and discrimination is because we don’t acknowledge our own biases. We think because it’s this way for us it’s this way for everyone. But that could not be further from the truth.

I encourage you to not only ask questions, check your bias but also to get out of your comfort zone to develop better empathy.  We have a big problem with this is North America. We focus on living a life of comfort. I encourage you to live a life of service and see how that changes you. Expose yourself to world you know nothing about (foster care being one of them of course) but consider volunteering at a pregnancy crisis centre, a homeless shelter, a women’s shelter or even your local food bank or mental health facility.  If you have been around here for any period of time you have probably heard me say that we are all broken but those of us who are less broken have a responsibility to others who are a little more broken. 

Why is it so important as a foster parent?

Often when we step into the role of foster parenting we are stepping into brokenness that we know nothing about. 

And if we do have personal experience in our history or in our families with certain things like mental health or drug addiction we find it is a lot easier to be empathetic to the families we work with. 

If we come from a background of roses and sunshine then it is going to be very hard to understand why some of the bio parents we work with make the decisions that they do. It doesn’t ever mean we agree with the decisions but we can see for example how someone got into the position they are in, be empathetic to their perspective and motivations and try and help and support them to a better place. 

It can also be very hard to parent trauma behaviours if we can’t gain perspective and understand what is going through their brains. You may think why are they behaving this way or why are they saying such things? It often feels like you are trying to fix something that’s broken. Empathy helps you change your perspective from how can I fix these behaviors to this child is really struggling how can I meet them where they are at and work through this together.

Sympathy VS Empathy

Sympathy is more like feeling bad for someone. I saw this video in my foster parent training and they used a visual about sympathy being you feel bad for someone stuck at the bottom of a well or a pit, so to help them you put a ladder down and help them up. 

Where empathy is climbing down the ladder, experiencing what they are experiencing and climbing up the ladder together hand in hand with sharing the same perspective.

So I encourage you to really think about this, read some books on empathy and see how you can develop this skill in order to serve you better as a foster parent. When you are a better foster parent, those you are helping will be better off too. 

Expose yourself to as many perspectives as possible. This truly is the best way to remove our own lenses’ and see the world through someone else’s. We have so much to learn. 

This will also help us when dealing with the foster care agency and social workers. Putting yourself in their shoes is so important. You don’t know what they saw today or has to do. They had to remove a child from a screaming and angry addicted parent, they had to pick bring a baby to the hospital with broken limbs from abuse. They had to move a teen to yet another foster placement. Their jobs are tough and it is so important to your working relationship to be empathetic with them. To be patient when they didn’t get back to you right away.