Present (not perfect) Parenting: Cultivating Connection using Empathy
Just this week I told some new parent friends of mine about listening to feelings, about Hand in Hand Parenting tools and about the new book Listen that is my #1 recommendation for parenting books. Just this afternoon I did a podcast interview (going live in a few weeks) with Amy Green of A Breath of Fresh Awe where I talked about the power of empathy as a first step towards Mindful Shift.
Little did I know in those moments that I would be living these ideas and using these tools so deeply today…
My 5 yo roared at the top of his lungs in a rage. We were in the bathroom going through our usual potty, brush teeth, read a book and bed rhythm. He had been tired and yawning downstairs and asked for me to hold him upstairs. I felt his sweet head weighing on my shoulder, his feet dangling with at the end of his rapidly lengthening legs. My sleepy bear…
I put him on the potty and he began to fuss. He did settle and sit and was then wanting to go. I told him it was time to brush teeth, and I had his tooth brush ready. He turned into a floppy fish, flapping and upset that he needed to brush his teeth.
I held the limit quietly and firmly: “It’s time to brush teeth.”
His anger showed itself as what was a whine turned into grunts and name-calling. “You’re a stupid mother.” “You’re a mean mother.”
Now, “stupid” and “idiot” are words that I have ever allowed in my classroom or my family. And in that moment, I myself was tired and ready for winding down. Plus, my own sensory issues of hypersensitivity to sound and touch go head to head with his hyposensitivity and other sensory integration struggles. I knew we were in this one for the long haul, and I would need to step out if we were going to make it out of this connected and together. I simply said, “I hear that you are angry. You may not call me that. I will wait in the room until you are ready to brush your teeth.”
I came back a few moments later after he had closed the door, pretended to brush his teeth and opened the door again. I reaffirmed the limit, “It’s time to brush your teeth,” clear that his pretend brushing wasn’t cutting it but not engaging in that power struggle. He alternated between flopping and roaring, pouting and raging as I acknowledged his anger and reaffirmed the limit.
He threw the bar of soap into the tub and wiped the gunk on his leg. I reaffirmed the limit and added that we would need to wash his hands and legs. More rage.
In a moment of seeming clarity and calm, he told me he didn’t like the way brushing feels. I spoke words of empathy in the open spaces about him not liking the feeling and not wanting to do it. I reaffirmed the limit. “It’s time to brush your teeth.” He responded with more roars of rage and more crying without tears.
Ready to brush his teeth, he walked over to the sink and grabbed her toothbrush. I showed him his similar toothbrush with the toothpaste on it. A loud wail came up as he defended his truth that his toothbrush was the one that she had used and now it was minty and he couldn’t use his toothbrush. A loud, intense rage came forth as I told him and affirmed that her tooth brush was minty and that his toothbrush was the one I was holding. “It’s serious! It’s real life!” he shouted. Again I told him I was stepping out of the room and would come back to help him brush his teeth. He shouted and quieted.
“You’re always telling me what to do!” he shouted as he mentioned my telling him to brush his teeth and telling him to go to bed. More empathy about how annoying and hard it feels when I’m telling him what to do. More reaffirming of the limit. More raging loudly while, outside the bathroom, my 7 yo began to tire of hearing me say I needed to stay with him and began to have her own sadness that I wasn’t going to make it to the room to play with her. I felt for her, yet I knew there was some deep work my son was doing. And he needed me to get through the layers of it all, to release some of what he was holding.
I affirmed that I was here, that he was safe, that I loved him.
I told him I hear how frustrated he is being told what to do and how angry he is at needing to brush his teeth when he doesn’t like how it feels. And with that empathy came the biggest, loudest flurry of fury yet. He thrashed about. He opened his mouth wide and roared with his full body, from his toes to his head, fists pushing at his sides. He swung the shower curtain this way and that with full on force. He swung and swung and roared and roared until he moved to the floor and collapsed in a heap.
At my sound limit, I had turned towards the door to get another break just as his little body crumpled….
“I am stupid,” he said.
My heart crumpled alongside him on the floor.
“What do you think is stupid, my love?”
“When I get angry, I hurt people.” …. “And doing that makes my head hurt.”
How is it possible for my heart to swell with such compassion and such awe at the same time?
We talked together about how he feels sad that he hurts people when he’s angry and then he feels alone. We talked about how when people (me, his dad, his sister) get angry with him he feels scared that they (we) will come after him and try to hurt him. We talked about how scary anger can feel, other people’s and your own. We talked about how we can work together to find some new ways to show anger when we feel it.
And we talked about how important he is…
How important he is to me, how important his anger and feelings are, how important his words he shared are and how important our working together is for both of us.
I asked if he would like me to hold him. He scooched a bit closer but, likely still filled with shame and guilt, wasn’t ready to be picked up. I wrapped my arms around his curled up body as he leaned into me and relaxed. All the while, my 7 yo had snuck in and was crouching behind my back. I nudged her to head back so we could move forward and through this bedtime rhythm, and she went, sensing the storm had passed.
I rubbed his back and told him I love him, that I am so grateful that he shared with me, how helpful it is that he knows so much about himself and his anger, that I am here for him.
I stood up and held my arms out to pick him up. I held him and felt his weight and length. So big. My baby bear…
I washed off his legs and arms and hands without argument, and even with some voluntary assistance at the end.
He said he was ready for bed. I reaffirmed the limit that it was time to brush his teeth. He opened his mouth, and I brushed his teeth.
No resistance. No rage.
Connection. Togetherness…through empathy…
I picked him up again and went to the room where his sister waited, also curled in a ball.
My son, who had been through such an intense journey of emotion, recognized the upset moving through his sister.
“I think now she is feeling sad, mama.”
I talked with my daughter who was feeling upset that I and her father seem to apologize to her brother more and listen to her brother’s feelings more than hers. “Sometimes, it feels like you don’t want me around,” she shared, likely due to my repeated calls to stay out of the bathroom while her brother raged and threw things.
I sensed she was wanting to be close, so I brought her onto my lap and cradled her like when she was a baby, “my teeniest tiniest” as she likes being called at times to confirm her preciousness.
I empathized about how hard it is when she wants to play and her brother needs help moving through something. It was hard for her that the bedtime process didn’t go as she was thinking and darkness was already falling. I reminded her that I had apologized earlier that day (as I do when I make a mistake), and she remembered and softened. She said, “we haven’t had Special Time.” Working to both empathize and open up to the truth, I acknowledged how she likes to play games with me and reminded her that we had Special Time earlier that day. She softened some more as the painful story she had been telling herself shifted to her being in my arms in a space of empathy and truth and love and safety.
We got our pillows ready. We turned the lights on to finish the chapter of the Herb Fairies book we hadn’t finished. We barely fussed when the lights were turned out instead of finding out what exciting thing was happening next. We cuddled and linked arms as they fell asleep.
“I love you both,” I whispered to closing eyelids and deepening breath.
Presence, not perfection…
I sighed fully. Not perfect, yet a parenting win for today. There is surely more learning to come from these moments and conversations. Yet, I took a pause to acknowledge that through empathy and the Hand in Hand Parenting tool of Staylistening, I stayed connected – connected to myself when I needed to leave so I could stay, connected to the limit that I knew needed to be held, connected to my son who was holding something way bigger than I could ever see, connected to my daughter whose tender playful heart loves to have me close. More than anything, I stayed connected to my values, connected to the mama I wish to be, the mama I hope they will remember.
Connection, compassion, clarity, acceptance, acknowledgment: Empathy. This is how self-love becomes present parenting.
Presence, not perfection.
And tomorrow, I have the precious gift of the opportunity to do it all over again…