My 5-year-old is standing at the edge of the indoor swimming pool.
Well, not exactly standing. More like quivering and shaking and crying hysterically.
His swim teacher has just announced cheerily that it’s time for jumps, and my son is freaking out. Mouth open with screams. Goggle-clad eyeballs scrunched up in pain. Whole body convulsing. He is so scared, a tiger might as well be charging right at him.
For him, there is simply nothing more terrifying than jumping in a pool.
His teacher is trying valiantly to reason with him, but he’s having none of it. From the bench at the other side of the pool, I wring my hands with my own pain, my mama pain. I want this terrible moment to be over. I want him to just hurry up and jump in the pool already. I am frustrated and embarrassed and also heartbroken.
As I watch him, my mind suddenly flashes back to 5th grade and the first time I rode a roller coaster.
I was (and still am) no fan of heights or speed or free falls. To me, roller coasters were (and still are) devices of torture rather than exhilaration. The only reason I agreed to go on one was because my best friend was urging me to, and I wanted to look cool in front of her. So with buckling knees and a panicking nervous system, I stepped onto the wooden coaster at Hershey Park.
It was as miserable as I expected it to be.
The flashback is so vivid it makes my entire body tense up. My heart rate increases, my palms grow sweaty. I might not be screaming and convulsing on the outside, like my son is, but I certainly am on the inside. It’s misery all over again.
The flashback is useful, though, because I instantly stop feeling frustrated with my son—who is now holding up the entire swimming class with his terror. I don’t even care. Because now I get it.
The Empathy Effect
In a nutshell, empathy involves placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, feeling their feelings, and seeing the world through their eyes—all without (and this is key) judging them or analyzing them or slapping your own silver lining on their experience.
Cultivating empathy for our children is key because it moves us from frustration to compassion.
I was frustrated with my son because all the other kids were jumping in and loving it; why couldn’t he just do the same? But when I remembered my own fear of doing something that all the other kids were loving, my perspective shifted instantly. I no longer saw the situation through my grown-up, mature lens; I saw it through a shared perspective of the fear and anxiety of doing something new.
What’s more, empathy fuels connection with our children. It’s a powerful force that makes us stop trying to get the other person to do what we want them to do, and instead just accept where they naturally are.
That connection is what our children really need from us, what they crave from us. How life-changing it is for kids to have their parents see their struggle and simply say “me too.”
The 5-Minute Empathy Exercise
For as important as it is, feeling empathy for our kids doesn’t always come naturally or easily. We have to choose it. We have to cultivate it.
After the experience at the swimming pool, I resolved to find an effective way to walk a mile in my kids’ shoes.
Here’s how I started:
I sat down with a pen and paper and a timer. For five minutes, I jotted down every painful memory I could pull forth from my childhood—every time I could remember feeling frightened, embarrassed, ashamed, belittled, jealous, lonely, or unworthy.
Here’s what it looked like:
2nd grade: I forgot my beloved Pooh Bear on our week-long Disney vacation. (A painful moment I’ve shared with my son before.) I can still hear myself wailing when I realized it.
3rd grade: Swimming class and all the other kids already knew how to dive. All I could do was belly flop. I can still feel the sting (literally and metaphorically).
4th grade: The most popular girl in school turned to me and said, “Did you want your hair to look like that?” TRUTH: I still think about that remark when I have a bad hair day.
5th grade: The aforementioned peer-pressured roller coaster experience. Shudder.
6th grade: I’m “in” with the popular girls, but they’ve decided to “out” my best friend. I put my head down and say nothing, afraid to be the next victim. Pangs of guilt are jabbing me even now.
Anytime I played volleyball, my palms smacking the ball instead of a gentle bump up with my fingertips. It’s just not my sport.
High school: I took up running and quickly became obsessed with beating my own time every single time I went for a jog. Eventually I had to quit because I couldn’t handle the self-induced pressure. It was a long time before I could lace up again.
(And many more examples that are far more painful and too personal to write here.)
Facing the Things We’ve Buried Deep
Most of these (except that hair comment!) I hadn’t thought about in many years; indeed, a lot of it was buried deep. Like most people, I don’t exactly want to think about my childhood hurts, whether big or small. So I’ve shoved them into the corner of my emotional brain, where they’ve been collecting dust for the entirety of my adult life.
I made myself pull them out, though, because in the heat of the moment I need to remember them quickly to empathize with my kids.
To remember my own terror when they’re quivering with fear.
To remember my own sadness when tears are running down their cheeks.
To remember my own embarrassment when their faces are beet red.
To remember my own perfectionism when they’re melting down over a little mistake.
To remember my own loneliness when they didn’t get invited to the party.
To remember my own guilt when they’re struggling to say they’re sorry.
Remembering our own pain fuels genuine connection with our kids.
One caveat: It’s clear my own experiences aren’t going to match up perfectly with my children’s. Their struggles will be entirely their own. But that’s OK.
As Brene Brown explains, “Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”
Another caveat: Feeling empathy doesn’t mean I become crushed by my own emotion. It doesn’t mean I’m reduced to a puddle and unable to help my kids process their own roller coasters. We can still be rocks for our children. Empathetic rocks.
Armed with my list—which took all of 5 minutes to create—I am ready to show my kids genuine, tender, aching, beautiful empathy.
I am ready to get down on their level, physically and emotionally.
So when they look in my eyes with their pain, their hurt, and their sorrow, I am ready to wrap them up tight and whisper, “I know, my love, I know.”