Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding Empathy for your Child

This may not be the most "practical" of my practical tips, but it is important, and it is fresh in my brain not to mention begging to be redeemed, so here goes...

This afternoon I set out on my weekly adventure to run errands, this time accompanied by my oldest daughter. We have a nice little errand routine that has made it almost pleasant, though exceedingly slow, to run errands. Today we needed to visit the library (to return a book at the drive through book drop), the bank, and the grocery store. Sounds simple enough, right?

As I was preparing to turn left into the library book drop lane I noticed an elderly woman driving the opposite direction and decided that though she was proceeding slowly I needed to yield right of way. It's a tight turn and I didn't want to cut her off. I stopped in my lane, so I had plenty of time to see her equally elderly passenger and figured they were having a nice chat as they putted along. As I negotiated the turn into the library I noticed another older woman pedestrian hot on my trail on the passenger side of my van. She was close enough that I was a bit worried I might hit her while also trying to line up with the book drop. She tapped on my passenger side front window. I thought maybe she needed directions or was confused about where the entrance to the library is, so I rolled down that window, but she crossed right in front of my van(!) and came around to the driver's side window. By now I could see she was angry, but I rolled down my window and asked nicely if I could help her. She started yelling at me about stopping so long and letting my exhaust fumes get in her face. I sat there, fully aware that my daughter was hearing every word and watching every response on my part, hoping my face had an appropriate response, angry for the tongue lashing when I hadn't done anything wrong, trying to figure out what to say to make this irritating person leave so I could complete my errand. I said something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't realize that had happened," and instead of accepting my apology or leaving in a huff the woman threatened to call the police next time it happened. (I was not aware that exhaust fumes had ACTUALLY been outlawed, YET.) She then proceeded to call me a crude name as she fumed (sorry, couldn't resist) off into the parking garage. I lamely yelled after her that she shouldn't swear in front of my daughter... (Oh, good comeback, me!)

As I then struggled to return my soon to be overdue video a kind pedestrian who had evidently witnessed the exchange offered to help me, but there wasn't anything she could do about it. I probably responded somewhat rudely to her out of my shock...and drove off in a fog to the bank. My daughter was peppering me with questions. Why did that woman yell at you? What did you not want her to say in front of me? Why should she not say that in front of me? What did you do? etc. etc. Fortunately my continued confusion, embarrassment and shock kept my answers short, to the point, and flat in effect. Somewhere in the middle of the produce aisle I could finally function without constantly thinking about this emotional attack from an absolute stranger. It still makes my stomach twitch just to recount it here.

Part of what helped me move beyond the nastiness of that moment, was a still small voice that said,
"Imagine how your daughter feels when you yell at her."
It gave some meaning to the experience. I've learned a lot in the last couple of years to help keep my temper under better control, but I still have my moments. I'm told that everyone does. It's been a while since someone older than me gave me a tongue lashing that they thought I deserved. No matter how undeserved it was in this instance, I imagine that my visceral responses were fairly similar to what my daughter, and any child, must experience when they're being loudly scolded:
how do I make this person go away
loss of social functioning

There is one really significant difference in the experience. I have no idea who this woman is. Even though we live in a small town, I will likely never see her again (I can hope!) After all my processing it was pretty easy to brush off her opinion of my driving ability, and whatever else she chose to judge in me. When I yell at my kids, they have to live with me the rest of that moment, that day, and beyond. They value my opinion (a little I think) and some piece of their self-image is built upon my responses to them.

I wish I could say I'll never yell at my kids again...that is unrealistic. It did help me keep my cool as I handled bedtime solo tonight. I hope, however, that this experience will give me a little more empathy for what they are feeling when I'm angry with them and will modify my own responses. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. How do you find empathy for your child?


Karen said...

I'm so glad I clicked on the link to The Simple Life blog from your post in 5MFSN. My husband has been out of town for a few days, leaving me to care for my 6 and 7 year-old boys (oldest has ADHD). They often get overly hyper nearing bedtime, more so when Dad's away -- and I find myself getting so angry sometimes. I pray, meditate, study, research for parenting advice, etc. -- it's just that in the moment I'm not able to get away from them to take the deep breaths, to calm myself. I try going to my bedroom, but then they're screaming and banging on the door. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Any advice?

KDL said...

Hi, Karen! I'm glad you stopped by. Running bedtime solo with multiple kids has to be one of the most challenging things for my temper. Behaviorally I have the equivalent of triplets, aged about 3 yrs. The other night I tried a different tactic, which basically involved focusing on one child at a time. Usually I try getting them all doing the same step at the same time, and they distract each other with their silly antics. First, I hope you already have a simple routine...simple = as few steps as possible, routine = same order for the steps, and same behavioral supports used at each step. Our routine is jammies, snack, brush teeth, story, bed (with snuggle time for oldest and supervision for youngest). My oldest knows that if she misbehaves at any of these steps she will find herself in bed with no story and no snuggle time pronto. This is the best incentive for the first four steps going well - she loves her snack and her story and doesn't want to miss either. Also note that the steps are patterned prefered, not prefered...i.e. changing clothes is no fun, but getting a snack afterward is fun, so that can be used as a "carrot" to get through the non-prefered step. Increasingly I am actually more frustrated with my twins, so it helps to take them one at a time through each step. It didn't take any longer, which was my rationale for doing them at the same time. There might be some concern with what the other two are doing while I'm one on one, but usually they are finishing up whatever step comes before and I'm on to the next child before anything untoward happens. I hope this helps. If not feel free to send me an e-mail. It is still challenging - right up there with trying to get dinner on the table.


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