Empathy can be a hard emotion to wrangle. Yet empathy, not simply sympathy, is a powerful tool for deeper connection. It was 10pm and we had been at it with our five-year-old, Clara, since 7 about going to bed. She was so worked up…about anything and everything. I was maxed out, frustrated, and ready to call an end to it all. And then my friend’s reminder popped up in my head. “Meet her where she’s at”.
Meet Them Where They Are
Sometimes there comes a point where all control is lost. I know there have been moments of breakdown as an adult. Think about a child’s perspective. Do you remember those moments where you were so lost in the emotion that you even forgot the reason it started? Have you ever gotten so engulfed in anger, sadness, fear, etc that it took you over and you were crippled not by the original issue, but by the emotion that created a life of its own?
I know this feeling. I have experienced being so lost in anger it physically cramped my body with muscle tension, headaches, and a cloud of darkness where I would fly off the handle at the slightest thing.
In about a year’s time, my aunt, grandmother and cousin passed away. A lot of emotions went through me that year. There were topics I had to avoid because I wasn’t emotionally ready to process through it all.
I’ve experienced significant loss of friends and family members. Miscarriages, unexpected deaths, suicide, divorce, financial stress, addiction and mental illness are all topics that have become personal to me. I’ve walked with friends and family through some dark spaces, and I’ve experienced love and support through my own darker periods.
And let me tell you what is not helpful. Hold on parents, I’m hopping on my soapbox…
What not to say to your children:
- “You’re okay!” When a child hurts themselves – what is the first thing out of a parent’s mouth? Oh, yeah, the parent letting the child know what level of pain they feel. Really? Think about this a bit. Yes, you can assure them and let them know that nothing is broken and they aren’t going to die. But be careful to not just rush to assure them everything is fine and not allow them to feel the emotion. Feeling pain and learning how to process through it is critical. I speak from experience, having a child who can easily get to the point of hyperventilating if we deny her feelings or get worked up ourselves. Parent tip: When your child is hurt, assuming it’s not catastrophic or an immediate emergency, comfort first. Comfort them as they process the pain. Then assess the damage done.
- “You need to….” This just boils down to everything. I have had three children who stuttered. Let me tell you something. There are times where it is flat-out all I can do to sit and listen to them struggle with a sentence. It can be very hard to be patient. I know the gist of what they want. I can just finish their sentence, or give them the solution. But there is that popular quotation: “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent'”. We are so quick to fill in the gaps for our children. Yet we comprehend that, as adults, being told something vs. realizing it for yourself are two very different paradigms. Parent tip: Less is more. Allow your child to get their full thought out. Don’t rush them, and don’t immediately come up with an answer. Show them the power of listening without agenda. Like St. Francis of Assissi says, “Preach… and if necessary, use words.”
- “It’s not a big deal.” If they do something on accident and are upset about it, sure, you can assure them it’s not a big deal. But if they come to you in tears because little Rocky took their toy, or Sasha said something hurtful, don’t negate it. To you it’s not a big deal, but to them, it is. It is a big deal to them. They feel a big emotion and their parent just squashed it and said it’s not worth that emotion. Parent tip: Instead of negating the emotion, walk with them through it. “I see you’re pretty upset.” Leave it at that at first. This is your critical time to just hold them through the emotion. Let them feel the frustration for a minute without immediately jumping to a solution on how to handle the situation. Then, talk it out. What makes it a big deal? How can we resolve it? What solutions can they come up with?
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are two different things. Once again, Brené Brown rocks it with this beautiful explanation on the difference between the two:
Meet your children where they are. Give them comfort first and simply let them know you are there. Resilience is built when children have support in who they are. Resilience isn’t imposed or taught as much as it is developed. It takes comfort, support, and empathy.Empathy is, most importantly, the bridge of connection between two souls. Click To Tweet
Meet your children where they are. Get down on their level. Let them crawl into your lap, no matter what age. Snuggle and just be.
Your Action Step This Week: The next time your child comes to you upset, immediately get to their level and see them exactly as they are. Comfort first. Listen next. Act only if necessary. Sometimes a comforting touch and support are all that is needed. They can navigate the rest of the emotion on their own. Practice empathy in your home this week.