26 Jun

What’s Empathy Have to Do With It?

Your 4-year old child is having a fit. He’s begging for M&Ms at the checkout line and you’re telling him “no.” Everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to do something about this out-of-control little monster. Your son already knows you have a rule about not asking for sweets in the supermarket, but, obviously, this isn’t preventing him from trying. You’re at your wit’s end. You don’t want to give in––knowing that it would only give him the message that, if he screams long and hard enough, he’ll always get what he wants. You also don’t want to leave the store without the groceries. You’re in a no-win situation, yet, you don’t want to concede or lose face.

What do you do? Well, you’re best bet is to just STOP! Stop doing whatever you’re doing. Stop thinking whatever you’re thinking. Inside your head, you may be saying: “this is so embarrassing, how do I get out of there?” or “why am I such a terrible parent?” Don’t let yourself get trapped in these thoughts. Acknowledge your anger, frustration, irritation, and the fear of what might happen to your child if he acts this way his entire life. Know that the dirty looks you’re getting coming from onlookers are just their exasperation and not a reflection of your worth as a parent.

Free yourself from self-judgment. Take a moment to breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with clean air, and then, with your exhale, release all negative thoughts. Be aware that the opinions of others, including other family members, may be clouding your view of reality and of what your child needs in this moment. Give yourself a chance to regroup. Consider that, as a parent, you are committed to teaching your child what’s best for him. Collect yourself. Tell yourself you can do it. Be aware of your emotions and also how they filter your perspective. Your child’s misbehavior upsets you, because it reminds you of the countless other times you’ve seen him act out, and also, probably, of your parents’ scolding of you or your siblings when you were a child. Your parents likely felt just the way you do right now. Even if the actors are different and the details of the story are changed, the script remains the same and it’s still playing in your head.

Now is the time to put on your detective hat. Be curious about the cause of your child’s emotions. As you open your heart to what your child might be experiencing, you’ll realize that acting out is your child’s number one way of expressing strong emotions. Yes, it’s the emotions that drive the behavior! When children are in the throes of their emotional, “lizard” brain––the part that keeps them in the fight, flight or freeze mode––their logical, reasoning upper brain goes offline. It simply doesn’t function. Even if at other times they show the ability to be reasonable, they can’t do this consistently. If they are tired, hungry, frustrated about a litany of injustices that happened at school or at the day care, they are less able to cope with a “no” to something they want or being told to do something that they don’t want to do. And so they blow their fuses. They lose control of their frontal lobes, which would otherwise give them skills for dealing with the challenging situation.

This is entirely understandable when you pause to think that even us adults lose our cool sometimes. Think of when you’re overwhelmed by work, deadlines, a demanding boss, a complaining child or spouse, or a tough commute. Sometimes you just want to bitch, moan, or lash out at anyone nearby. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rude gesture to your fellow drivers on the road or a harsh word to one of your family members. Or else you just want to crawl into a dark cave and hide. Admit it. You’ve lost your cool before. As an adult, more often than not, you can get a handle on these situations and keep your wits about you. You sense when you’re about to explode or shut down and you put on the brakes. You find a way to handle your emotions that will cause the least amount of harm to yourself and your family.

Not so with your kids! Children are not yet wired to have self-control under stress. Their prefrontal lobes, which control the logical part of their brains, are not fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s. Yes, folks, mid-20s! As a parent, it’s your job to help your children gain the skills that further the growth of this upper-level, reasoning brain. Now that’s a job skill you probably didn’t know was part of the deal when you signed up to be a parent!

If you’d like further information about parenting for peaceful families, contact Kim at 561.351.4256. True North will hold monthly Healthy Parents’ Evenings, beginning in September (see http://kimwallant.com/services/). You can join other parents in these informal gatherings to share and support each other in your parenting adventures.