The Power of Empathy in Connecting with a Child
Today was a special day – a real breakthrough it felt like. Since learning “nonviolent communication” (NVC) skills, I’ve been empathizing quite a bit with my children (9 and 6.5). It’s obvious that it has real power. When they feel HEARD, they know they are being seen, they say more, they trust me more, they enjoy our relationship more, and I believe it boosts their self esteem. This all makes for one very happy Mom, which further strengthens our ties. You could call it a very positive vicious cycle.
After school, Nico (9) asked for my signature as he handed me a sticky note. He tried to be nonchalant about it, but I stopped what I was doing so as to give this my full attention. I’m fairly sure he knew already, but I started to explain that signatures aren’t something people typically give out – there’s approval and weight behind them, bla bla. It didn’t take long at all before he gave up hope on the easy route and whipped out a folded piece of paper with typed up questions and scribbled, brief answers he’d provided at school. “You’re supposed to sign this, it’s something stupid.”
Hmm. I opened it up and read what appeared to be an attempt on behalf of Nico’s teacher to get him to reflect on his behavior in the class. Evidently there were many other children in his class who were required to fill it out today. The language she used struck me as, er, rather unhelpful. For example, “How can you avoid this writing punishment next time?” Yet rather than allowing him the space to actually think about his own answer, it was immediately followed with, “Write the rule again.” He answered obediently, “Don’t talk when I’m not allowed to.” Some reflection!
I looked up at him and saw the dread in his eyes, which seemed to say “Here it comes, now she’s going to be frustrated with me, too.” He looked both sad and upset. I felt a mountain of compassion for him and invited him to tell me about his experience in the classroom.
It wasn’t our first conversation about his frustrations, but this conversation opened up some new connections. I listened very actively by reflecting back what I heard him say, leaving all judgment and advice out of it, not preaching, and also guessing at times what it must be like for him. I could tell it was such a relief to be heard and maybe even understood by a grown-up who for once wasn’t telling him what to do. . . and punishing him if he didn’t.
I heard the longings of his heart, for example things like, “respect, patience, room for mistakes, seeing his efforts.” And, “because the teacher is so frustrated and angry with us, we feel frustration and anger, and it makes it so hard to do what she wants!” When I asked him what “respect” meant to him, he was able to boil it down at some point that it WASN’T about obedience – that much was at least clear. When I thought he was calm enough, I tried to empathize with the teacher a bit. “Is perhaps quiet in the classroom SO important to her—her idea of a learning environment—that she resorts to requirements of obedience / punishment as the only strategy she knows?“ He added that she’s in the middle of a big move, and that it will probably get better when she’s settled again.
During all of this, a lot of tears were choked back – as if he didn’t want to let it go. I asked if that is what it is like for him at school . . . holding it together, staying strong, being polite, giving the answers he knows are expected. . . when inside other emotions are at play? This helped him open up and cry, and he went on to say, “yes, and that’s why I so often take it out on Nadine (little sister) after school, because I just can’t hold it in anymore!”
My compassion for him increased tenfold at that point. He rarely gets that from me after he’s yelled at her or inflicted any pain on her. I made a promise to him that I would try harder – try to remember to at least ask about the bigger picture. What else might be going on – is there pent-up frustration, like a walking volcano? I so want this conversation to stay with me . . . that I always see that vulnerable, beautiful little human being, who’s doing the best he can in a hard world.
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