This morning, my child was being completely stubborn about what she wanted to eat. As her parent, I have choices and responsibilities. I wanted to see her side and completely give in. After all, some parents have trouble getting their children to eat anything. In extreme cases, kids even need a feeding therapist to establish positive mealtimes. In reality, I was just trying to find an excuse so I didn’t have to deal with her shenanigans. My daughter is determined. She is smart. She is great at problem-solving and observing behaviors around her – including my behaviors! So, my choices were (1) giving in and letting her eat sugar for breakfast or (2) making her eat something healthy. But, these choices do not have to be so black and white. Understanding and redirection can co-exist.
As a somatic psychotherapist, I am highly skilled at empathy, especially on a body-level with children. I can feel what they feel, and I can hold the space. I used to think that was enough. And, sometimes with parenting I want it to be enough. And, sometimes it is. We all know that children need to be seen, heard, and understood. These experiences are the cornerstones for developing emotional intelligence and coping skills. However, children need more than empathy. Often parents get stuck in one lane or the other – trying to have empathy or trying to make a child comply.
When it comes to discipline (teaching) and boundary setting, we, as parents, need a balance of both empathy and compassion. Empathy is the ability to feel what another feels and to know that feeling is very real to them. Compassion is seeing that their behavior related to the feeling is no longer beneficial for them and introducing discipline or boundaries to help them learn a new way of coping and navigating.
For sleep, which is the parenting topic I get asked about the most, empathy is understanding that a child might be afraid of the dark or misses you and wants you close. Compassion comes in if and when you see these experiences/feelings are interrupting their sleep and they are becoming sleep deprived. To stop at validation, keeps them in an experience that is no longer beneficial, and it says them, “Yes, the world is a scary place. You can’t do this on your own.” Instead, we can say (with our behavior and words), “I know you are scared, and I am right here!” AND “You can do this; I will help you learn how.” There is a great deal of good that comes from holding a child accountable for what we know they are capable of achieving. The key here to know what it is they are capable of developmentally and temperamentally.
So, what does this all look like for a child who won’t sleep or wants 15 visits from his parents before he will settle to sleep? The first step is empathy. Observe your child’s experience and requests. Validate her concerns and needs. Before making any sleep changes, help your child process her fears through play. Offer opportunities for your child to see what she is capable of doing by showing her what bedtime and nighttime will look like, modeling with her favorite toys. Write him a book, both validating his experience and stating new expectations. Then, by being present teach your child to sleep by slowly giving him more and more responsibility. Consistency and clear boundaries are imperative here! This is where compassion comes in. With the boundaries, we are saying, “I am setting a safe environment and experience for you, so you can relax your body and go to sleep. I am right here, and I have this under control. You have everything you need in order to find success with this task.” We have validated, and we have offered a solution – a new way of coping with their fears or whatever other big feels they have at night! Your child will appreciate your taking the time to understand what it is that she needs AND offering a solution to travel out of feeling stuck in an experience that is no longer beneficial for her.