Learning to be more present and empathic to ourselves and our children

A few days ago, I went to our local health food shop with my two children, Lana (8), and Sunny (3).  Before we left, they both had some feelings brewing.  Instead of staying and listening to them, I chose to go, since the shop was about to close and we had run out of our favourite foods.  Once we arrived in the shop, they got very agitated; Sunny talked to Lana in a loud and upset voice, and Lana wanted Sunny to do something he didn’t want to do.  

I’m celebrating what I did next… I thought, “They’re really upset; they needed some connection and empathy before we left and I didn’t give it to them.  Now we’re here and I really want to buy these couple of things, and then we’ll go home and I’ll give them the full connection and empathy that they need.”  After thinking that, I gave them some warm empathy about feeling upset, and told them that I’d be really quick, and then we’d go home and I’d listen fully to their feelings.  And that’s what happened.

You may be wondering why I’m telling this story.  I’m celebrating because I remembered times in the past where something similar had happened, yet my internal dialogue and responses had been very different….

One of those past times, I’d gone into a spiral of self-judgment – I told myself that I hadn’t listened to them when they really needed it, and that meant I wasn’t doing Aware Parenting, and that they had loads of accumulated feelings, and that meant I wasn’t being the parent I wanted to be, and how could I help other parents when I wasn’t even doing it myself, and so on and so on …. And then I’d felt despondent and upset, and close to tears.  I’d disconnected from Lana and Sunny, and didn’t say much to them, and got home as soon as possible, to judge myself some more about how I’d handled the situation…   

Another time, I had told myself how difficult things were, and how I never get my needs met, and why wouldn’t they just cooperate with me, and then I’d felt frustrated and angry and had spoken to them in a frustrated tone of voice.  I’d bought the food we needed, and stomped off home, with a sense of blame and resignation.

In both of these past times, I was so caught up in believing the unpleasant story I told myself about what was going on, that I was a million miles away from the present moment.  I certainly wasn’t available to offer the here-and-now warm and empathic connection that my children most needed when they were feeling upset.


A while ago, I wrote about three main ways we react to our children when they are feeling upset: detachment, sympathy, and empathy.  I started thinking about these again after the shopping incident:

Detachment
In the past; my internal dialogue had led to me feeling upset, and then I’d gone distant, and unavailable for empathic connection with Lana and Sunny.

Detachment occurs when our child expresses feelings and for one reason or another, we begin to feel upset too. (This could be because we connect to similar feelings, or we start a critical self-judgment, or we begin to remember how we felt during similar situations when we were children). To protect ourselves from our own feelings, we disconnect from what is going on for us, and so also disconnect from our child.  This might be literally, as in leaving them, or sending them away, or it might come in the shape of dissociation – when we are still there physically, yet emotionally we have become distant.  Our child feels this lack and senses our emotional absence, which can be frightening for them.  It certainly doesn’t meet their need for connection and support.

Sympathy
In my other old shopping example, it was like me being in the soup of upset feelings with them – as if we were three children, all desperately trying to be heard.

Sympathy occurs when our child has some feelings, and we then also feel upset.  We may go into similar feelings of our own, or get lost in a loop of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.  When we are in there, we are no longer present with our child.  Babies and children can sense a lack of emotional safety when this happens, and don’t experience being fully seen and heard.  




Empathy
What I actually did this time (yay!) is an example of empathy.  

When we are centred in our own presence, we are able to simply be there, and feel love and compassion for our child when they are upset. They feel our empathic warmth and love for them.  We neither retreat away from their feelings, nor fall in the intensity of feelings with them.  Babies and children experience this as emotional safety.  They are seen for who they are, and for what they feel.  They don’t need to become something else to help us feel more comfortable.  They stay connected to their own authentic being-ness.

When we are present in our centre, and listen to our baby or child’s feelings, we hear them, and we also know that they are also safe and loved.  We do not fall into believing that the pain they are expressing in that moment is all who they are.  By remembering their wholeness and presence, we hold a safe space for them to experience their painful feelings.

Parenting Styles
Detachment, sympathy, and empathy are ways we can look at different parenting styles.  When we are more permissive in our parenting, we tend to get into sympathy with our children – we get confused between their feelings and our own, and we lose ourselves.  We may do whatever we can to prevent our child from feeling upset.  

With authoritarian styles of parenting, we tend to get detached from our child’s feelings and needs, and we may blame them for our feelings, and disregard the reasons for their actions.

With democratic parenting, we aim to stay connected with our own presence, and our feelings and needs, whilst also being aware of our child’s feelings and needs.  We intend to understand what is going on for our children, and to trust that there are ways for us both of us to get our needs met.

Increasing presence and empathy
How do we increase the times that we are present and empathic with our children, rather than detached or in sympathy with them?  How do we nourish our ability to parent democratically?


I find that the friendlier and more compassionate I am with myself, the more I am able to parent with presence.

When my children are upset, or do something that I don’t enjoy, and I start with an unfriendly dialogue inside my head, there isn’t much likelihood of me being able to really hear what is going on for them.  I am also not in a position to think clearly and find a solution to meet everyone’s needs.

In contrast, when my internal dialogue is compassionate, avoids painful conclusions, and stays simple and calm, then I’m much more likely to be able to respond in a warm and loving way to my children (and myself).

Two types of feelings
Something I’ve found really helpful with this self-friendliness is differentiating between – on the one hand, painful feelings that need to be acknowledged; and on the other hand, feelings that are simply created by the judgmental things I’m telling myself.

When I tell the difference between the two, I have ways to move back to presence.  

If it’s the first kind; I’m feeling upset and I need to acknowledge those feelings, then doing this feels nourishing, and I come back to being present again.  For example, say a friend is moving away, and I’m feeling sad; then I give time to just be with that sadness, and let it move through me, then there is a sweetness to the sadness, and I am still able to connect with my children and what is going on for them.

However, if the feelings are created by judgmental self-talk, then I come back to presence by becoming aware of those thoughts, and then choosing a different way of seeing things.  For example, say I’m feeling frustrated when one of my children doesn’t do what I ask, and I check in, and find that I’m saying to myself something like, “No-one is going to help me; I always do it all myself,” and I see that those thoughts are causing the pain.  Instead, I choose not to believe them.  The simple fact is that my child said no…. and I find something more friendly, like, “Well, I’d love some help, and actually I’m really glad that she’s telling me what’s really true for her.  And wow, I’m remembering all the things she does do to help.  And I can help myself, and so I’m going to have a ten minute sit-down on a comfy chair on the deck to recharge my batteries….”  

I find that seeing the difference between the two origins of feelings, and knowing what to do to help myself with each, means that as time goes by, I react less in ways that I don’t want to with my kids, and more in ways that I want to…

Each time I respond in a calm and compassionate and present way with my children, I celebrate!  And I imagine that they do too!

Roll on, next shopping trip!

This was first published at Kindred in 2010:
http://www.kindredcommunity.com/blogs/guests/marion-b-rose/moving-away-from-detachment-and-sympathy-to