Fear. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Regret. Shame. These are all human emotions, and our kids experience them, too.
Children, however, do not have the same ability to regulate emotions that we have as adults. They also do not always have the vocabulary to express those emotions. They need us to help them walk through the feelings and come to a resolution. Children need a patient, empathetic, compassionate parent when they are feeling their worst.
As a parent, this is difficult. It is neither fun nor convenient to have a child to throw a tantrum or have a meltdown. It’s easy to want to dismiss their negative emotions, or, worse, to mirror back to them our own negative reactions. When we, as parents, either ignore our child’s emotions or react negatively to them, we do our child no favors. In fact, we can cause more damage.
But when we take the time and energy to be present with our children, pursue them, and practice empathy, not only do we help teach them how to work through their emotions, we reap a relational reward.
I was reminded of this last week. Let me tell you the story, and what I took away from it.
Lucy’s Emotional Episode
I don’t think I had ever heard my daughter cry the way she did that afternoon.
Tears were streaming down her hot, red cheeks and screams came in waves, broken up only by desperate gulps of air. It was urgent, intense, and alarming, and I was completely taken aback.
We had had a busy week. Spending five days watching my nephews and niece had been fun for me and for my kids, but we were out of routine, and I knew it had taken a toll. Hours of non-stop fun and stimulation had already altered their nap schedule, and exhaustion was setting in for all of us.
I had laid Lucy down for a very late afternoon nap on a mattress in their foyer so I could tidy up around the house and hear her when she awoke. And when she did rouse from a deep sleep at around 6:00pm, I was in the bathroom. My niece collected her and delivered her to me, and already Lucy was showing signs of distress. I put her to my breast while I reviewed the flight schedule on the internet, and she pulled off, crying. I quickly tried to distract her by showing her a video of a cat stretching itself in front of a fire, which worked for a moment, but when I turned it off, her cry, like a siren, started all over again.
She squirmed out of my lap. I asked if I could hold her, and she refused. Over and over, she cried out, “No, no, no!” After a minute of watching her wander around the room wailing, I scooped her up in my arms and took her outside, trying to whisper calming words into her ears. She continued to struggle against me.
This annoyed me. I was exhausted, too, and felt little patience to deal with her huge emotions.
“Fine, whatever,” I said curtly and set her down. She retreated into the house, crawling underneath a side table, looking at me through a flood of tears, her face growing redder by the minute. Her cries were now growls, and I was befuddled, and my patience was waning.
She was upset that I had turned off the cat video, I assumed, but with some doubt. I knew her angry cry, her frustrated cry, her hurt cry, and this was something different.
I took a deep breath and picked her up again, this time choosing to take her to the front yard, asking along the way, “Are you angry at Mama for turning off the cat video?”
A declarative, “No!”
I set her down again, and she walked away from me, occasionally choking on her spit. I began to pray silently for patience and wisdom. It is my default, especially when I’m weary, to take these types of episodes personally and become angry. I needed grace to sustain me through this one.
Lucy collapsed on the ground behind a dogwood tree, and I sat down on the opposite side of it. Did she need comfort? Did she need space? I had no idea.
“Can I hold you?” I asked her again, this time tears cropping up in my own eyes.
“No!” She wailed.
“Are you angry? Are you disappointed? Are you hungry? Is there something you wanted to do? Do you feel sick? Are you still tired?” Each question was met with a parade of “no”s.
“Did someone hurt you?” I was unsure of where the question came from, seeing as there was no opportunity for her to be hurt. But as soon as the question was out of my mouth, she stopped crying, turned to face me, looked me directly in the eyes, and said with trembling lips, “Yes.”
I was amazed. She took a step toward me. “Can I hold you?” I asked, and this time, she said, “Yes,” and tottered over to me, face covered in red blotches. I held my child in my lap and offered her my breast again, which she accepted.
“So someone hurt you?” I asked again, and she nodded solemnly. This puzzled me. I ran through a list of names, knowing none of those people would harm her, but wanting to understand her perspective. All of the names I listed merited a small shake of the head.
Did she know who had hurt her? No. Had it been a boy or girl? It had been a girl, she said, then continued to nurse.
“Where did she hurt you?” I asked, and she pointed to her hand.
“Were you afraid?” Another nod.
“Was I there with you when it happened?” No. “Was Daddy there?” No.
“Did this happen while you were sleeping? Do you think you had a bad dream?” And she thought for a moment, then nodded slowly, her eyes exceptionally blue and sad.
I took a deep breath. I’m never quite sure how to address these types of issues, particularly when I’m unprepared for them. All I can do is tap into empathy and think, what would I want from someone if this was happening to me?
I pushed the hair out of her face and rocked her in my arms. “I’m sorry, Lucy,” I said. “I’m sorry that you had a bad dream. I’m sorry that you got hurt, and I’m sorry that me or Daddy wasn’t there to protect you. That would be really scary to have a dream like that and feel alone!” She maintained eye-contact, and I wasn’t sure how much she, as a 21 month old, was taking in, but the color in her face was returning to normal.
“I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to protect you. It is my job to keep you safe, and it makes me sad that you had that dream and it made you afraid. But I am with you now, and you are safe.” I asked if I could pray for her, and I put my hand to her head and asked God for her safety and protection and for healing for her broken spirit.
Then, she stopped nursing and I asked her how she was feeling.
“Good,” she said, her voice calm. I took a deep breath and thanked God. She sat up and smiled.
I wrapped my arms around that little girl and marveled at the whole experience.
Those fifteen minutes had felt like a lifetime. I had to set aside my plans and choose to pursue my daughter, even though it required a lot of me. But I was so grateful I did, and I had learned a lot through it.
What would have resulted if I had ignored Lucy? If I had yelled at her out of my own frustration? If I had, as some parents do, sought to punish her emotional outburst?
Firstly, the problem would not have been solved. Secondly, I would have established that expressing negative emotions is bad or shameful, and would have perpetuated an unhealthy view that likely would go with her into adulthood. Thirdly, I would have lost an opportunity to connect to, understand, and establish trust with my child.
Helping an Emoting Child
What we need to do is to help our child through the emotional episode. This will require a lot of self-control, patience, and a large dose of empathy, but will be worth it in the end. You know your child best and will likely know what will best help them during an emotional episode. Here are some tips to help you through these inevitable events.
Be Present – Some children want to be held close, while others need some space. They key is to be available. A parent walking away feels like abandonment and will only heighten a child’s cortisol levels, making it more difficult to work through the situation. Being present with your child shows that you still care for her, even when she’s feeling difficult emotions. It is a demonstration of unconditional love.
“I see you are upset. Can I hold you? No? All right, I will be right here if you change your mind.”
Pursue and Provide Language – Help your child understand her emotions by providing language for her. The rational part of a child’s brain takes years to develop, and sometimes he simply does not have the words to express their feelings. Pursue your child by asking him questions, or seeking to label him emotions for him. Once a feeling or situation has a label, it is a lot easier to work through.
“It seems like you are really disappointed about that toy breaking. I know it was one of your favorites!”
Practice Empathy – Remember, it will do you no good to take their emotions personally. Work hard to consider how your child is feeling. How would you feel if this happened to you? This will help you in how you respond to your child. You also could share an experience with them to show them you know how they feel.
“I broke my favorite mug last week, and it made me so frustrated! I was sad to know I could never use it again. I know how that feels.”
Do The Best You Can
I personally have missed opportunities to practice these skills with my own children. I have reacted in anger and walked away from them when they’ve needed me most. I’ve apologized to them for these moments. It is not fair for me to punish them for being human and having emotions and needs.
Being a parent has helped me realize that I still have to work through my own negative emotions (something I’m discussing with a counselor). I am decidedly committed to healing so I can better help my children. Practicing being an empathetic parent has really helped me see the impact I have on my children’s health and well being.
It is important that we, as parents, keep moving forward. That we keep working hard to do the best we can for our kids. That we recognize unhealthy mindsets, behaviors, and cycles in ourselves and work to end them for the sake of our children. Parenting requires a lot of reflection, sacrifice, and intentionality.
We can’t be perfect parents, but we can be good ones.