Friday, August 18, 2017

Helping the Parent of a Young Child Through Empathy and Silence

One morning a few months ago my mom babysat so I could run some errands.  (Thank you Mom!) When I got home I was a little jittery from that second cup of coffee and super hungry. Enter plan for a quick lunch, microwave burritos from the freezer and a pre-packaged salad from Aldi.  But I had a Big. Bag. Of. HEAVY. Papers. slung over my shoulder, and needed to get it in the back room before the baby grabbed the carefully arranged papers and tossed them all over the room (a favorite hobby of his at the time).

Mom's telling me how the morning went, which is great. But I'm a little shaky from being hungry and this bag is really heavy. And the baby has this look on his face like MOM MOM MOM you're home PICK ME UP! And I know that as he wobbles towards me with arms raised that if I don't pick him up there will be crying and it will be loud.

In my head, my words are clear. I'm thinking, "Mom, will you hold the baby for a sec while I go put this bag in the back room?"

But that's not what comes out.  What comes out is "Uhhh... This bag heavy... Ummm..." And some hand-waving toward the baby, and a definite expectation that my mom will read my mind and pick up her grandson so he doesn't cry. I confess I even start to feel a little irritated when she fails to read my mind!

"Just tell me what you want," my mom says after I spent a few seconds waving my arms.
So I finally get the words out.  She picks up the baby, I drop the bag off, and soon lunch is on the table and all's well in the world.


While my toddler can hold a decent conversation nowadays, he's not as good at it during moments of intense emotions. And I can't blame him, because look at how hard it was for me, as an adult, to communicate a simple request when I was tired and hungry.  Little kids have it rough when it comes to communication for sure.  Also, there have been many moments where my child has had poor communication skills modeled to him because my anxiety got the best of me.  Couple this with the normal difficulties of early childhood and sometimes it seems that we have it a little more difficult than the average for our social circles.

That said, there are a few things that make this journey a lot easier for my child and I. A lot of support comes through our family and friends.  People understand that this is a draining time and they want to help.  I'm so thankful that between grandparents, church family and friends, we have a strong support network.  It really does take a village.

The village can sometimes be an obstacle to peace, however, whether it's with my own anxiety or my child's growth.  It's in thinking about this that I want to share two things that I find really helpful both for my own anxiety and for helping my child through a stressful situation.

  • First, how helpful it is to know that I'm not alone.  
  • Second, the gift that moments of silence are even in stressful moments.  

I'm hopeful that this will be a blessing to the reader, that you might have an idea for how you can best support the young parents in your life, especially if they, like me, struggle with anxiety.

EMPATHY -- Can you relate?

I thrive when people empathize with me.  Brene Brown has a lovely video on empathy that I'd encourage everyone reading this to watch.  In a nutshell, it talks about how empathy fosters connection, because you're showing someone they're not alone.  It's contrasted with sympathy, which can backfire and foster disconnection.

Thankfully, I have a lot of friends and family who know what it's like to be a parent of young kids, either because they've spent a lot of time with me, or they have been through that stage recently themselves.

But what if you can't relate?

Maybe you've forgotten what it's like to be a parent of a small child.  Maybe you don't have kids and honestly just don't know.  Maybe when you see a young parent struggling, what's going through your head is an analysis of their parenting behaviors and how their kids are reacting, and your brain is buzzing with how you would do it differently.  I get it.  My brain does that too.  You probably care about me and want the best for me, and I am thankful for that.  But honestly, more than advice, however well-intentioned, often what is most helpful for me in these kind of moments is ... silence.

SILENCE -- The space to figure stuff out.

Ahhh...  silence.

This silence is such a tangible one.  It's a silence that you can feel.  Sometimes it's heavy.  We're doing life together, and my kid has an outburst.  You may want to rush in to respond immediately to it, because you care about my kid, and you care about me, and you want to help us.  That's my instinct too.  However, sometimes this is counterproductive. 

What's been helpful for me lately is to let the silence sit for a moment after the outburst.  Of all the things that I try, this has the highest success rate.  Frankly, any words that are said immediately after an outburst are not going to be heard by my kid, and will likely just go in one ear and out the other and result in escalated yelling.  

Silence following my kid's outburst, a space where there's no judgement, just a pause to breathe...  to think... to consider what I'll do next... to say a prayer...  this is so lovely.  Even in that pause I want my child to see me and think, "Mama's got this." My child may feel out of control, but I want to be IN control (of myself mainly), and I want my child to know it.  To feel safe, to feel protected, to feel well guided.

It's SO HARD to just be quiet in these moments sometimes.  I waver with how well I do this.  Sometimes I am able to be strong, quiet and calm, even if I have that insidious, usually unproductive compulsion to run over to my child and set the situation right.  Especially if I think he's doing something wrong.  Maybe he's climbing on a table, maybe he's being unkind, maybe he's just doing something I find annoying.  But if I react out of my first instinct, it'll probably be a reaction that's tinged with anger: "I'm not going to let him get away with this!  This kid's gotta have limits!  How dare he do that!"  All of a sudden it's getting personal.  

This isn't about ignoring limits with my kids.  It's in pausing, first to consider if he REALLY needs direction from an adult right now or if it would be better to let him figure out the thing on his own.  And second, if I determine that it is indeed a time to state a limit or a consequence, then the pause gives me the time to consider a limit that I actually am willing and able to enforce.

For my friends and family, I know that so often when you are with me and my children do something that seems like it might require intervention, I know that you just want to help.  I want you to know, though, that my occasional silence (and it is growing to be more and more because I really like this strategy) isn't me saying, "I don't know what to do right now.  I need someone's help.  I want someone's help."  My silence is a calculated strategy to first, see if my kid can figure it out on his own, and second, to make sure that my response to him is thought out, productive, and helpful.  So if you would honor the space of silence, it would be really helpful for me, and also for my child.

Usually, I will prefer to handle my child's outburst on my own.  It's not that I think you wouldn't do a great job at handling it.  It's mostly just that "too many cooks spoil the broth" and usually the cook who knows what ingredients are already in the soup and how long it's been cooking can best keep it from spoiling.

Silence can be lovely.  I love silence in moments of stress, because it leads to a sense of being present.   If I react to my child's upset with immediate words and emotion of my own, often I'm just trying to fix/change his emotion rather than understanding him, and that's not helping him to learn to manage tough feelings.  It's just teaching him that the emotions are bad and to be avoided as a top priority.  But the thing about emotions is they don't go away... they will come up in other ways if we don't address them.  I think that we are supposed to let the emotions come and go in waves and not bottle them up in closed-off spaces where they can fester and grow all sorts of smelly things.  Let it come, let it go, and the waves have a beauty of their own even if they are kind of scary.  Silence gives space for the emotion to play out, to resolve in healthy ways.

I love words, and sometimes I love the absence of them.  Sometimes, I just don't need words.  And sometimes my child doesn't need words.  The silence is precious.  

And silence to think, that's quiet powerful.  When I begin to replace more of my "Uhhhh...  This bag is heavy... Uhhh..." statements that are really mind-reading requests for someone else to do something for me, with a "Hold on a sec..." and a few breaths to get my thoughts in gear, I will be much more emotionally healthy than I am now.

And if I can just pass that lesson on to my child, too, it will be a great opportunity for him to learn to manage tough emotions.  A breath, a hug, a tear soaked into my shoulder.  And some silence.  These things are okay.  And these things are lovely.

If you are a parent, I hope thinking of this blog encourages you a little the next time your child has a tantrum.  If you love someone who is a parent, I hope that you got something out of this, too!!


  1. I get it, thank you for explaining how you feel and how you wish things done. It took a lot of thought for you to put this in words and you did an excellent job!