My son’s pediatrician -Dr Crook was not a crook, but a gentle soul. He looked like a grown-up version of Harry Potter. Best of all, he did wave an invisible wizard stick. You would magically feel at ease in his presence.
He would listen, I mean really listen to your problem. I told him my son was having regular tantrums, not listening and bullying his siblings.
I added I wasn’t helping the situation either. I was quick to anger and not able to handle the situation calmly.
He gave me his pointers-When you sense things are about to go downhill with your son, move in with a gentle touch, make eye contact, listen and talk calmly.
I took mental notes and nodded like a good student.
Later, when I was thinking about what he said, I realized something.
The good doctor had in fact modeled for me the exact way to approach the situation not from his verbal advice but from the way he set me, a troubled mom at ease.
First Listen · Pass NO judgment · Show Empathy · Offer Help
I, a full grown adult was touched by Dr. Crook’s empathy. It felt like a balm to the soul when in my troubled moment I was not judged but listened to.
So, how much more did a growing child need empathy?
The fact of the matter was that I had a lot of misconceptions about EMPATHY. It probably stemmed from my own upbringing.
I thought that being a mom meant being a Truthsayer. I self-appointed myself the physician whose job was to break bad news to his patient.
If he was frustrated about something, I told him, that was LIFE and it never went according to plan.
If children were mean to him, I told him he would face even more as he entered high school, university, work, relations. He had to learn from all that.
If he fell and got hurt, I told him, it was just a small cut.He had to be stronger.
In my delusional mind, showing empathy EQUALED not being honest with him.
If I didn’t tell it to him, then who would? I reasoned.
I also thought as a parent, it was my job to erect danger signs everywhere to prevent him from making mistakes.
Subconsciously, it was the mistakes, I had made.
What I was doing was unconsciously downloading all my life experiences onto him. The times I wasn’t treated with empathy as a child, the times kids were mean to me, the times people made me feel less than, the times I didn’t make the best judgments, the times I had failed.
I was like the doomsday prophet.
“The world is ending, be prepared! People are going to hurt you, treat you badly, be wiser, be stronger, be tougher…”
But you couldn’t expect a child to learn valuable life lessons without making mistakes or experiencing any disappointments. You could lecture them all you want, but they wouldn’t get it.
This was his journey, not mine to reroute.
Also, I was always in a hurry to make light of his situation by comparing it to an incident that happened to me or someone else.
It’s the classic “When I was your age, I had 2 shirts, one pant and had to walk 2 miles in the blazing heat, blah blah blah…” story.
Dr Crook taught me that there would be time to paint myself as ‘Joan of Arc’ LATER.
First HE HAD TO BE HEARD, his pain had to be felt, his feelings justified or not had to be acknowledged.
Once the connection was built through empathy, he would be more than ready to hear my story.
I also realized that this parenting skill i.e.-Empathy is an important social skill too in any relationship.
Isn’t it pretty irritating when we start telling someone about something that’s troubling us and instead of acknowledging our feelings, they negate it?
They begin a long story about what they went through all dramatic exaggerations included!
I am guilty of having done that a million times to my kids.
It kind of minimizes the other person’s problem. That must be how my son felt.
She’s only lecturing, not trying to understand how I feel.
Empathy was connecting to his delicate heart in the moment when he was frustrated and broken. My son with his rough, tough exterior and big build was actually the one with the most fragile heart out of my three children.
He would get easily disheartened by things that normally wouldn’t affect others.
Elementary schoolers are skilled at the art of wanting to be one up on the other person, my son included. Here are some snippets from conversations I get to hear from them.
Kid 1: I watched a new episode of ‘Odd Squad’ this weekend.
Kid 2: What? I used to watch that like when I was in kindergarten.
Kid 1: I love to play that Racing video game.
Kid 2: What? That’s like so boring! I play the new FIFA 2018 game on my new XBOX 3000. It is so awesome.
All this sounded pretty hilarious to me. Forget the ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey’, these little people were far more catty and entertaining.
But jokes aside, in the mind of a 10-year-old who’s looking to fit in with his peers, those words taste like bitter rejection. They were making him feel that his thoughts or interests held no worth what so ever.
What he had to say, didn’t matter to anyone. That can cut at the heart.
I wanted him to think like a mature adult, that real friends wouldn’t make him feel bad, that life wasn’t about having the latest XBOX game or hanging with the in-crowd.
I wanted to toughen his marshmallow heart under that cookie crumb covered shirt.
I wanted to ready him with mental armor to face the harshness that life would inevitably deal him.
My thought process was-
If he felt bad when kids were mean to him, it would be a lesson in conflict resolution.
If he felt bad about not having the latest game, it would be a lesson in living within your means.
Can you see my theme here? I thought everything in life was a lesson and he had to welcome it with arms wide open!
No doubt those life lessons were important, but my thinking had one glaring flaw.
I didn’t give his feelings any importance and with that I gave him no importance, just like his friends.
Before he could imbibe all those great life lessons, I had to empathize with the feelings he was having as a 10-year-old child.
I could not look at it from my vantage point, a middle-aged woman who herself only learned those lessons when her wrinkles were beginning to show.
I never wanted to shelter my kids from the abrasiveness of life. I wanted them to be exposed and aware of the plight of the less fortunate, to stop and think of someone other than themselves.
I felt a bubble wrapped existence would ironically only cause more injury.
I showed and discussed with them news footage of tragedies in other parts of the world. I explained to them the insurmountable suffering that many children their age lived with and to not take their blessings for granted.
It was also important to me that they didn’t play the role of just sympathetic bystanders. They had to do their part however small in making someone else’s life better.
But in the midst of my philanthropic aspirations for them, I had so easily missed the most pertinent thing.
I expected my son to grow up having empathy for others, but how could he learn that skill when I hadn’t show it to him?
When frustration had taken him siege during a tantrum and he was troubled inside, I tried to end it with my anger.
I didn’t acknowledge the struggle he faced inside or help him deal with it. So how could he ever feel for someone else’s pain?
When he vented out his innermost loud emotions, it wasn’t with the intention of getting advice. It wasn’t, “Mom can you solve this problem?” It was, “Mom, I’m feeling really bad. Can you listen to me.”
Empathy equaled listening with no judgment, not listening for a minute followed by a 30-minute lecture.
The world would be full of critics-his classmates, his teachers, other grownups. Did I need to add to that?
It got me thinking about the times my son had a blowout. His cries might have stood for, “Mom I’m really frustrated now. I don’t know what to do.” and not “I’m trying to make you mad.”
Empathy was the silver bullet to kill a tantrum.
Once a child’s feelings are heard, they themselves would feel their behavior was uncalled for.
Energy doesn’t go outward into defending themselves but inward into self-reflection-Jennifer Kolari (social worker)
One day if I lived that long, I would be in the winter of my life. When I wasn’t strong, healthy or able-bodied any longer, wouldn’t my aging self want empathy from my children?
If I didn’t give it to them as a vulnerable young child today, how could I expect it back from them as adults tomorrow, when roles were reversed and now I was the one in a vulnerable position?
My Lesson: Instead of a ‘court with a Truthsayer’ , my son needs a ‘Comforter and a safe place to be himself’.