Story: My strong willed 8 year old was diagnosed with anxiety and displays this with anger. Last March I got diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery. His anxiety hit the moon. He’s been acting out by throwing a ball at kids, stepping on their feet, throwing sand, yelling, etc. I practiced your principles of empathy, and he was able to tell me about a kid teasing him for not climbing the rock wall. I would never have found this out had I not set aside his behavior and my problem, used compassion and empathy, and listened. Yesterday when I picked him up, he came running into my arms and cried and cried really, really hard. WOW! He hasn’t cried like that in years. He cried the whole way home and continued at home and let me just sit there with him. I used empathy when needed and let him say all these horrible things about a kid who’s been bullying him. Bingo, I got to the root of his behavior, went right past those weeds. I did my best to guide him on things he can do, letting him figure this out but also giving assurance we are in this together. This is a big leap for us, and I went to bed feeling more confident knowing I am not perfect but realizing I matter in his life. He felt safe, loved, and supported.
Response: I am so thrilled to hear your story and witness the power of your empathy. What you did was allow your child to think and feel the way he needed without telling him what you thought he should do about it. And as you say, you might never have found out about the bullying had you not let him lead the emotional way in the first place.
To do that, you trusted that his aggressive behavior—something that parents are so quick to judge as wrong and to punish—was a signal to something internal, in his case his anxiety. When you can see that, you are led to, What is he feeling anxious about? Not sure what words you used to practice the principles, but whether it was something like, It’s got to be so hard for you to know what to do when you know that I am sick or Your behavior is telling me that something tough is going on for you right now, you acknowledge for your son that his behavior is coming from fear. He feels understood and safe to go further.
By not asking questions or telling him to stop his behavior or using punitive measures, you dug right into his emotional state. Then he could unload. And he did! Then, by simply witnessing the unloading and not telling him to stop or calm down, you allowed him to go through the full arch of his emotions and come out of it when he was done.
For any child, once the emotions are fully unloaded and not forced back inside with a direction to calm down, he is clear once again. At this point, when emotions are cleared, the thinking brain can come back online. We all know what it’s like to have “a good cry” or witness a child who I think of as a little philosopher once that cry is over.
This is the point at which problem solving can work wonders. And again, you guided him with suggestions but not directions on what he should do. You allowed him, in this clear-headed state, to decide what plan of action would work the best for him right now.
This requires trust. You trusted your child to know what’s in his best interest at this time. In this clear-headed state, he is likely going to think rather than react. If he does react with something aggressive or illogical, you can say, How do think that would work? What do you think that boy would do then? Instead of You can’t do that.
Leading him in this way means that he feels your trust in him. When children know they are trusted, they don’t want to betray that trust and will likely rise to the occasion. It’s when kids believe they are not to be trusted that they behave in an untrustworthy manner.
Congratulations! I’m so glad you shared this story. It is a brilliant example of how to put connective parenting to work. Not only can you go to bed feeling like you matter but when you work with a child in this way, you feel truly fulfilled. A feeling that is rare and most needed for any parent.