Why helping your child feel understood is almost as good as a magic wand for the pain. It just takes a little work on our parts!
Do you ever have one of those weeks where being a parent just breaks your heart?
I was having one last week.
My son is in physical therapy trying to catch up on some gross motor delays and the therapist came out and told me he isn’t progressing as well as he should be.
Whew. That was hard to hear as a mom. Obviously, I want to give my son the world, so I’ll help him catch up as best as I can and we’ll do the extra therapy for sure. Still, it’s hard to know your child isn’t caught up to his peers, so I was a little sad.
Little did I know that the very next day, I would feel the sad even deeper and see the need for the therapy play out even more.
I picked my son up from preschool on Tuesday and took him to this indoor playground we love in town. Typically, he’s played more on the toddler side, but he wanted to play on the big boy side today. Always wanting to encourage his bravery, I said yes.
He spent a little time roaming around the bottom exploring and then decided he was ready to try to conquer climbing to the top of this gigantic three story playground equipment. (Think of it as the Chick-Fil-A play areas… only 10+ times the size!)
There were lots of other big kids in the area, and my son gets a little intimidated since he’s not quite as sturdy on his climbing skills. So, he tried to convince me to go with him to the top. Needless to say, I’m a little large for the playground, so I sent him on his merry way.
I was so proud of his bravery. Conquering wobbly bridges he was terrified of and hanging in there pretty good with more able kids.
Then, he decided to go even further up to this windowed tube near the top.
At first, it was sweet, I could see the little top half of his head peeking out the window and his little hands banging on it to get my attention. I waved and waved like an overeager, proud mom at the bottom, which I certainly fit the bill for, and then started thinking it looked like he was telling me something. Maybe he was worried? Or was he sad? Was he saying he needed help?
I didn’t know what to do. So I tried encouraging him to climb down, if he could even hear me up there. And at first, I saw the tip of his curly, blonde head trying to climb down. Then? Nothing.
It was a really long five minutes. I kept watching the window and the place where he’d climb and there was nothing. I so wanted him to do it on his own, but by this point, I had started to get a little worried.
So, I heaved my pregnant body up several netted stairs, across the wobbly bridge, up another flight of cushion stairs, through the maze, and made it to the tube. Where I found my little boy lying at the entrance of the tube, head down, tears in his eyes, unsure how to get down from the heights he had climbed.
What was my very next response? Empathy.
After all, I know what it’s like to climb to the top of something and be unsure how to get down. I know the feeling of getting myself in a pickle and being overwhelmed by those around me who seem more sturdy, more able. I know what it’s like to feel scared and alone.
I just had to access it and share it.
I didn’t yell at him or tell him to get over it. I didn’t try to teach him anything right away or stay at a distance.
Of course not.
I sat down on the top of this playground, opened my arms, which he climbed right in, and asked my tiny boy if he was scared with big tears in my own eyes.
I wanted him to feel: felt, understood, known, etc. I wanted him to see that I got it, that I knew what it was like to not know how to get myself out of a mess and need help sometimes. I wanted him to see me connect with something deep inside myself too, so he knew he wasn’t alone.
After a few hugs and snuggles, he was dry-eyed and ready to play again. He was able to connect with me, amidst his pain and fear, and see that he was not alone.
I think that’s empathy. I think that’s what our kids need in their struggles. I think it’s what we need as adults in our struggles too.
Brene Brown is a best-selling author and researcher on shame, vulnerability, and connection. She made this quick video about empathy that I use when I share and teach on this subject. It has helped me learn so much how to care for others, even my own children and myself.
I encourage you to take the 2.5 minutes to watch it and see what you think.
So simple yet so profound, right?
My son on the playground did not need me to be the moose, to look down on him and tell him to get over it. He needed me to be the bear, to heave my body up there and sit right down in his pain and fear with him.
I loved how she ends it with this line: “the truth is this: rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Questions to ask yourself:
How many times do we sit and struggle and want to have just the right words to help our child feel better? Especially now, in this place of pain your kids are probably in?
What would it look like for a whole generation of us as parents to learn how to connect with our own pain, climb down into the tough places with our kids, and show true empathy? How do you think it would change our children’s lives? How do you think it would change ours too?
Taking it one step further, what would it look like to do that for others around us as well?
Can you name the people in your life who have done this for you? Isn’t it true that those people are generally the ones you want to take your pain and hard days to?
What if the same is true for our kids as they struggle? What if they can grow up wanting to come to us with their pain and struggle and trust us not to fix it right away but to be with them in it?
One of my favorite parenting books is called No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. It is a beautiful and poignant book on how to help our kids in their chaos and nurture them along the way. Their words on empathy have been shaping me as a mom and therapist for years. They write:
“Think about it: how does it make you feel when you’re upset, and maybe not handling yourself well, and someone tells you that you’re “just tired,” or that whatever’s bothering you “isn’t that big a deal” and you should “just calm down”? When we tell our kids how to feel and how not to feel – we invalidate their experiences.”
Then, “For a child or an adult, it’s extremely powerful to hear someone say, ‘I get you. I understand. I see why you feel this way.’ This kind of empathy disarms us. It relaxes our rigidity. It soothes our chaos.”
For a child watching their parents divorce or processing the separation or fighting, I can assure you there is probably a lot of chaos and rigidity. You can probably think of ten scenarios right now where you wish you had a magic wand to disarm their little bodies and minds.
Empathy is no magic wand, but I will tell you this: sometimes it feels like one.
There are research studies on what happens in the brain when we feel felt and understood. And what it feels like to me is almost magic. The magic of connecting with another.
What if that is all your hurting, angry, confused child needs this week? To be offered empathy, feel understood, and be connected with.
My gut says you are likely a parent just like me, wanting to give your child the world.
How about until we figure out how to wrangle the whole world, we start with a little practice in empathy?
We’d love to hear more from you as this practice hopefully has a domino effect of connection and love in your home.
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