A Lesson in Empathy


This morning was rough.

For some reason, AJH was in an awful mood. One of those moods where she HATES everything, argues with everything, doesn’t want to cooperate with me on anything, and is pretty much impossible to deal with.

I suppose it’s pretty typical for a two-year-old, though I thought we had outgrown that behavior for the most part.

At thirty-one-years-old I STILL have those days, and they’re not fun.

Today just happened to be one of them (for both of us).

For me, one of the worst feelings is being out of control, especially out of control of my feelings, and especially when they are feelings of irritability, anger, or frustration.

Looking back on our day, I now realize how awful it must be for her to be overcome with such strong emotions and have no idea how to handle them at such a young age.

I realize now it is my job to teach her how to handle those moments in a calm, cool, and collected manner.

Let’s just say I wasn’t a very good role model today.

I was patient about twenty of the fifty times she cried, yelled, or threw a tantrum this morning, and after what felt like the 100th whiny outburst, I lost my temper. I raised my voice and said, “Just stop crying!!!”

I scared her and she started to sob.

I felt awful and knew I screwed up big time. I knew I should’ve just walked away, taken a deep breath, and cooled off before responding, but I didn’t.

All I could do was scoop her up, hug her tight, and say I’m sorry. Of course, she laid in my arms, clinging to me, wanting nothing more than my acceptance.

Looking back, now I realize, all she wants is to be loved, understood, and held…especially in those rough times when she is tired, upset, and just feeling “out of control.”

(Don’t we all?)

They say parenting is the ultimate test in karma. What goes around definitely comes around. If you terrorized your parents, then your child is bound to do the same to you., etc.

Well, it wasn’t three hours later when the tables were turned.

AJH threw another tantrum and I started to feel my blood boil. I was losing my temper, slowly but surely. I knew I should take a deep breath, and calm down before handling her screaming tirade, but this time we were out in public, surrounded by other people, and that was just causing my anxiety to rise even more.

Once again, I snapped. But this time on someone else. A family member. Who was just trying to help.

I knew the second I did it, I had screwed up again. Big time.

I took out the anxiety, anger, and frustration I was feeling toward my two-year-old-daughter  on an innocent bystander.

Not okay.

I felt out of control of my emotions and ashamed of my actions.

I apologized, but it didn’t seem like enough. They were obviously hurt and I felt awful.

Then the tears came. I tried to express how exhausted, fed up, and overwhelmed I was feeling with AJH. Being nine months pregnant doesn’t help…especially with the “out of control” hormones and emotions.

AJH looked up at me and didn’t understand why I was so upset. Because I wasn’t able to stop crying, or much less form sentences at that point, I went to the bathroom to try and calm down.

After about five minutes she came to join me because she had to go potty.

She said, “Are you done crying?” and I said yes. She asked, “Why were you crying?” and I said because I was sad. She asked “Whyyyyyy?” again and I told her I was sad because I was being mean and I felt really bad about it.

Then she looked at me with a stern face, raised her finger and said, “Well, STOP CRYING! STOP CRYING!” in the same tone I had used on her only hours before.

Wow.

So, this is what I was teaching my daughter this morning when she was feeling the same way… irritable, frustrated and simply out of control?

Not good.

As parents, and people, I realize we are constantly messing up, not handling things the way we would like to, hurting feelings, and hurting ourselves.

We’re not perfect. We beat each other up. We feel ashamed. And all we can do is say sorry…and hope lessons were learned.

And that’s what I did as I stood in that cramped bathroom, holding my daughter and holding back tears.

I told her it was okay to cry…sometimes we are sad. Sometimes we mess up. It’s okay to cry. It’s not okay to be mean, or hurtful, but it’s okay to cry.

Suddenly it all came full circle. What I’ve been reading about in all of my Positive Parenting research was finally starting to make sense…and not  just for my two-year-old.

But for this imperfect mama the lesson goes much deeper. I realized today that the worst feeling in the world is hating the way you are, the way you act, the way you respond to others, but feeling like you have no control over it. I hate losing my temper. I hate feeling easily overwhelmed and irritated. I hate feeling sad and anxious. Most people say, “Well, then stop!” But just as I told my daughter to “STOP CRYING!” this morning, I have learned that heavy feelings are not just something you can turn off.

I don’t want my daughter to ever feel shame for her emotions, and unfortunately, I think that’s exactly how she felt this morning. Once again, it is my job to teach her how to handle those moments in a healthy fashion.

As the research says, “If we can’t tolerate her anger and sadness… she learns that part of who she is is unacceptable, that there are ways in which she is shameful, and, what’s more, completely alone. As with any un-acknowledged emotion, the anger and sadness don’t just  vanish, they go underground, where they are magnified and sow the seeds of depression.”

So, how do we gain control when we feel totally powerless to our emotions, our anger, our frustration? For some, it’s as simple as learning to step away, and breathe. For others, it’s not that simple. It may take meditation, medicine, or  therapy.

How do we foster empathy in our children so they learn to process those heavy feelings, rather than feel ashamed of them?

We let them feel. We accept their feelings. We don’t force them to stop feeling, stop crying, stop being frustrated. We tell them, “It’s okay to feel. I will not allow you to hit, or hurt others, but I will always be here to hug and hold you when your feelings are too big and too much for you to handle on your own.”

It takes practice. It takes acceptance that we are not perfect.

It takes countless “I’m sorries,” and lots of big hugs.

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