How can we turn from resistance to empathy?
I was sitting in the waiting room at my daughter’s dance studio. Another mom had just arrived with her two daughters in tow. One of them was sobbing. After a lot of resistance, she finally got both of them into the dance class. Then, she sat down next to me and let out a big sigh. “She’s driving me insane!” she said, referring to her younger daughter. “The entire car ride here, she was yelling at me that she wanted a hug and kicking the seat! Why can’t she understand that I can’t give her a hug while I’m driving?!” I gently responded, “In my house, when there is an upset like that, it’s usually one of two things: hunger or fatigue.” The other mom dismissed these two possibilities, saying that she had eaten a snack and that she should have known not to act that way even if she was tired.
Always try to put yourself in their shoes
I decided to try a different approach. I shared an experience from one of my own daughters’ tantrums. When Anna, my 10-year-old, would come home from school and melt down about homework, I used to say things like, “It’s just homework, it doesn’t matter!” Quickly I realized that responses like that didn’t help. In fact, they made my daughter even more hysterical. I went on to explain that in those situations, I now try to put myself in my daughter’s shoes with the understanding that there’s more to it in her world than my perspective of “oh, it’s just homework.”
Instead, I remind myself that in her world, feeling overwhelmed with homework is a big deal. And it’s not a good feeling. We can all agree that it sucks to feel overwhelmed.
“There’s a difference between validating someone’s pain and encouraging it. When you empathize with your daughter, you lay the groundwork that allows her to move through a challenge instead of beating herself up for it.” – Enough As She Is by Rachel Simmons (pg. 186).
One of the healthiest ways to help someone process upset and overwhelm is to make them feel heard and allow them to cycle through their emotions without being resisted. If you tell them that homework or wanting a hug doesn’t matter, you are creating resistance.
A moment to reflect can give space for empathy
After I shared this example of my experience with my own daughter, I felt the courage to add, “What do you think is really going on with your daughter for her to melt down in this way?”
There was a pause where the mother’s energy shifted, and I could tell that she had reached her own conclusion as to why it happened. She explained that she had just gone back to work as a NICU night nurse after seven weeks of leave. She was away from home three nights per week, for 12 hours at a time. She realized that her daughter was having separation anxiety.
In her daughters’ 7-year-old mind, it was manifesting as, “I WANT A HUG!” She didn’t have the tools or the words to express exactly what she was feeling and why.
Our resistance makes us blind
It’s our job as parents to take the time to understand the deeper meaning behind our kids’ upset and have an awareness of what could really be going on when they’re having a meltdown like this.
When we resist them, we become blind to this awareness. When we fight back, we fuel the tantrum. Instead, we can choose to give them space to express and hold space for what needs to come out and be processed.
I felt so much empathy for this mother, who was burnt out from the stress of her night shifts. She was pushed to her edge in the NICU, her sleep patterns were disturbed, and her anxiety was high. In fact, her anxiety was so high that she couldn’t sit still while telling me this story.
Empathy Leads the way to love and understanding
As I listened to her, I didn’t resist or tell her that she was wrong. I empathized just as I would with anyone who is hurting. I listened with empathy, and I could feel her suffering. We all suffer in different ways, and this was what it looked like for her at the time.
What amazed me about this mother was that it didn’t take her more than a few moments to snap out of it, see her part in things, and put herself in her daughter’s shoes. If I had resisted her feelings or made her feel like she was wrong, she might not have been able to shift and see these insights like she did.
When we resist, we create a reality of feeling stuck. When we empathize, we make room for love and understanding to come through. This mother loved her daughter so much – it was tangible. She just needed a few moments free from resistance for that love to come back into the forefront of the picture.