Empathy is Everything

Tired toddler

I have often read that empathy is extremely important to children, but this holiday season really brought home to me what a fantastic tool it is for managing young and often scary emotions in children. I’m pretty sure all I did this month was restate 75% of what my son said. “You really want to open presents now.” “You can’t wait for Santa to come.” “You don’t want to leave the party.” “You’re so excited about Christmas.” over. and over. and over, again.

I’m not sure what brought on the sudden use of this rather well-established parenting tool; perhaps it was simply that I got tired of counting out the days on the Advent calendar to illustrate how long we had to wait until Santa arrived. After a while, I started restating my son’s complaints, angst, and other anxieties more to buy time than anything else, usually while juggling a conference call for work (for which I had myself on mute, of course) and an unhappy baby.

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After a month of this, however, it’s a fairly ingrained first response, and it has become a wonderful way of defusing volatile emotions. I always try to give the *reason* for rules, for “no”s, and for other corrections so that my son learns something more than just not to do or say something. But while the adult in me finds the reasons supremely important, the kid in my child finds the empathy more so. I still give the reason for just about all correction or other issues, such as this morning’s crisis over the flu shot visit. I explained the flu shot, being healthy, being brave, etc. We watched a short cartoon about a character getting a flu shot. But after about five minutes of that, the rest of the pre-shot countdown was just me restating his fear and concern and wish not to go. And as it has for all of this month, the empathy and restatements had a bigger impact than any amount of reasoning I offered.

I’m marking this post to pop up in my inbox next Thanksgiving so I don’t have to wait for exhaustion to set it before I remember how effective empathy is, especially during those difficult weeks of the holiday season when young emotions and anticipation are too intense for them to handle. Then, more than any other time, empathy is everything.

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