What can I do when my child is upset?
Parenting can be a tough road to travel because as our children grow up and face new challenges, we face the same challenges right along with them. In the heat of the emotion of temper tantrums and meltdowns, it can be difficult to remember that as parents, we have the advantage of foresight and understanding that our children don’t yet possess. And, with this tool of knowledge, we are in a position to help calm their storms.
When I first became a parent, I was way more reactive than responsive. Armed with only the tools from my own upbringing, all I knew was that strong emotions were a bad thing and should be squelched, so when my children became upset, I would do ANYTHING to get their discomfort (and mine) to stop. It was almost as if I was feeling what they were feeling and could not bear to endure their disquiet. Even with small discomforts, I became anxious and felt like I had to fix whatever was broken so that they didn’t have to feel their own pain. I wanted them to be OK, and somewhere inside of my head, I blamed myself for their difficult time.
So what did it look like when I couldn’t fix things? It wasn’t pretty. Once I began Internalizing their abrasive emotions, I only became more erratic in my desperate attempt to stop the madness. I threatened, bribed, shamed and punished my way to reconciliation (or so I thought) so that nobody had to “feel” their feelings. This was such a bad idea because my girls were overflowing with displaced emotions that had nowhere to go which meant that every emotion of theirs that I suppressed eventually resurfaced. This turned into a constant stream of defiance, whining and sibling rivalry.
Not to be defeated, I dug deeper into my start charts, time-outs and whatever else I could throw into the ring, but nothing worked long term. It was as if I was fighting an uphill battle facing downhill. Nothing made sense and we were ALL feeling the pressure.
It wasn’t until I began to take a more positive approach, one that was rooted in truly connecting with my girls, that I began to see a change. This wasn’t easy because it required me to exercise my empathy muscle which was WAY out of shape. There wasn’t much empathy in my own nuclear family growing up, not because my parents were terrible humans, but rather, like many parents (including me), they didn’t know how powerful and helpful empathy could be.
It was only when my own parenting coach began to walk me through the process of showing empathy during times of upset that I gained a deeper and more complete understanding of how effective this tool could be. To be honest, I thought she was joking when she suggested that I simply listen to my screaming kid and be kind and empathetic. Ha! Yeah, right! I simply couldn’t imagine what that scenario would look like, but since I was paying her, I figured trying it at least once wouldn’t hurt.
What happened next was nothing short of remarkable. At the very next confrontation with my oldest, I walked through the steps of connecting through empathy and it worked! Not only did it work for my girls, but it did something for me, too. It gave me the peace of mind and confidence to become my girl’s guide through the scary emotions of life. They now know that I am a safe place for them in their time of need, and this has made all the difference. As with most things of lasting value, it didn’t happen overnight, but the positive change between “then” and now is staggering.
Do you want to learn more about empathy and some examples of words you can use to help “calm the storm”? Grab my guide on “How to Show Empathy”, here.