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I got into the field of psychology because I wanted to help others, and this desire to help came from my ability to easily empathize. I never knew just how valuable empathy was as a parent until I started noticing the narration running through my mind as my daughter would cry, whine or scream.

I will be the first to admit that when I first became a parent I was not able to consistently use empathy. I was anxious and frustrated that I could not figure out how to help my very tearful (and reportedly colicky) baby during those first few months, and every time I thought I had the parenting routine down, developmental changes made me shift everything.

Fast-forward a couple of years—I noticed my daughter crying at bathtime and found myself saying in my head, “She really gets upset when water gets in her eyes. She’s really scared that shampoo will get in her eye.” I then wish I had bought curved rinse-cup that would fit up against her forehead. I also thought the tear-free shampoo wouldn’t bother the eyes until I decided to try it and noticed how annoying it felt, as my eyes were feeling like they were reducing to raisins.

My point in saying all this is that empathy was the one of the keys to keeping myself calm.

I would reflect what she was expressing to me,“You really don’t like it when we wash your hair. You are worried that water and soap will get in your eyes,” but I knew that I still had to get her through it and continued to say, “We will try and make sure that water does not get in your eyes.”

How would this look if I were not coming from a place of empathy?

Well, for one, I may lose my cool because I may view her as an obstacle to getting her own hair clean thinking in my head, “Just let me clean your hair so that this can be done with!”

I may raise my voice and make it even more difficult for her to manage her feelings, as she may feel that she is unsafe to express her feelings with me or that her interests are not my priority. This pattern can continue for many months or possibly even years—with my frustration only increasing and her ability to see me as an understanding parent diminishing.

And no one wants that. So here’s how we can parent with more empathy:

1. Be aware

Notice what you are saying to yourself as your child begins to whine or cry. Are you finding yourself frustrated that your child is not listening? Do you keep nudging them to get through the difficulty by saying, “You’re okay.”

If this is you, know that you are not alone. In fact, we have likely all been here at some point. Instead of being really hard on ourselves for having been there, let’s just notice it.

Notice why it is difficult to tolerate the tears or frustration that your child is experiencing. Are you taking this as a reflection of you as a parent?

I will tell you right now that whining and crying does not mean that you are doing something wrong as a parent.

It is simply the current mode of expression while your young child is learning language and learning how to regulate himself in order to express themselves through words. Their brain is nowhere nearly as developed as yours, so it is important to shift the expectation you have for your child. Research now says that the brain is not fully developed until about age 25.

2. Take time for yourself

You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others—If your cup is empty, you have nothing else to give. Self-care does not necessarily mean manicures and massages.

For me self-care is waking up at 5 a.m. to exercise for 15 minutes, have my cup of tea, eat breakfast without distractions, and do a little bit of something I enjoy (like writing or reading). And yes on some days this is not realistic and sleeping in a little bit longer becomes my self-care.

What does it look like for you? Taking care of yourself can be those little things that actually make a big difference. For example, actually taking a lunch break at work and using part of the time to go for a walk or setting limits to how many events, birthdays and get togethers you commit to.

Overall, I notice that self-care really means slowing ourselves down and being intentional with our decisions. It’s so easy to move from one thing to the next never letting ourselves catch a break. So if nothing else, work on slowing down as a part of your self-care.

3. Put yourself in your child’s shoes

Empathy is going to be the key to getting out of your own head and into your child’s. You will not easily shift to an empathic point of view if you are not aware of your own perceptions and neglecting yourself. This is why I put it for step three.

Sometimes it is helpful to think back to when you were a child and recall what you needed when you were tearful or upset. Keep asking yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me right now? What does my child need from me right now?” This will help you get to an empathic understanding of your child rather than focusing on, “How can I get them to stop their crying/whining?”

4. Identify their emotions

Here you are going to help your child gain the words to express himself. For example, “It looks like you are upset because we have to leave the park. I know it can be hard to say ‘good-bye’ when we are having fun. We will be coming back to the park tomorrow.”

5. Stay calm

It is incredibly important to remain calm above all. If there is anything you forget, please DO NOT forget this one.

By staying calm you are showing your child that you are able to handle the situation.

Often times we have this idea in our heads that we are showing that we are in charge when we raise our voice or yell.

Helping our children be calm, starts by showing them how. If you want to help your child feel secure, you need to remain calm so that they know you feel like you can handle it. If you must, go ahead and fake it until you make it here.

Take a few minutes to get yourself in the right space before responding. And if you notice yourself being reactive, see my next step.

6. Take the time

Give yourself room to grow. These changes will definitely not happen overnight. You might find yourself forgetting to fill your cup, stressed by many things at once, and raising your voice at your child.

You will make mistakes. We all do.

The most important thing you can do when this happens is become aware of it and acknowledge your mistake to your child. For instance, “I was upset and yelled. It was not okay for me to yell. What I wanted to tell you is that I see that you are upset, but we still need to go. I am here to help you go back to the car.”

So much of this requires us to unlearn the things that we have been taught through our own families, friends, and through society. The more we practice this, the easier it will become.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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