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Empathetic Parenting

Empathetic Parenting

Next Step TherapyWednesday, December 4th, 2019


(Why you shouldn’t lose your crap when your kid does)

The oldest, Noah, turned eighteen this month.  He’s been driving for almost two years.  No incidents.  A few weeks ago on a Saturday night he was driving us from Franklin to Meadville to see the ballet.  Yes, I said ballet.  Both of my sons have been taken to shows since they were three, and they like everything from Do-Wop music to Cirque Du Soleil. Noah’s very good friend was starring in Rapunzel.  We had attended opening night in Franklin, and enjoyed it so much that we decided to go see it again on closing night in Meadville.  Noah was in a shirt and tie, I was in a dress, and he was escorting his mother to the ballet.  Go ahead and swoon mommies of youngsters.  It does happen.

As we left Franklin, I made a conscious decision to not pay attention to his driving.  I figured that after all of this time he didn’t need moms’ scrutiny.  I had noticed the last time that he drove me that he was faster than he had been previously, about five miles per hour over the speed limit.  I chose not to say anything.  Why?  Your choice – I’m an idiot, or I believe in letting kids make mistakes and learning from them.  Anyhow, I’m playing candy crush on my phone, and we’re talking about the ballet from the previous week when I hear, “Awwww…….”   I look up, and we are sailing past two police cars.  I look at the speedometer, and it says 62.  I look in the side mirror, and the cop is pulling out, and putting his lights on.

I say, very calmly, “You are being pulled over for speeding.  Hit your turn signal, slow down, and pull over onto the shoulder after the guardrail.  Get over enough so that you aren’t on the road, but not far enough over to sink us into the ditch.”  And then I said, “I can’t believe we just did that.”  WE???  Yes, we.  Because I was present when it happened.  I could have mentioned that he had been over the speed limit previously, as soon as we got in the car.  I could have been paying attention and told him he was speeding.  I could have demanded that he stay within two miles per hour of the speed limit if he wanted to drive my car.  But, I had said nothing, let him handle it, and now there was a price to pay.

When he got the car stopped, I said very calmly, “Get your wallet out and pull your drivers’ license.  Put your window down.”   The officer came to the window, gave his name, explained why he pulled him over, asked for Noah’s license and the car registration, and off he went.  At which point, Noah went off too.  “That pickup truck that passed us two minutes ago must have been doing 80 – why didn’t he get stopped?”  “This sucks.”  “I’m on my Junior License, and six days away from getting my regular license.  I think a ticket will hold that up for six months.”  “I wonder how much this is going to cost.”  “Is he going to frisk me?”  “We should just go home.  The night is ruined.”  Ei yi yi.  The angst.  But, what momma knew, because momma knows her son, is that underneath all of this ‘life is unfair, this is a disaster, the night is ruined’ dialogue, that the real story was that Noah was mad at himself (because he never gets in trouble), and horrifically embarrassed that this happened in front of his mom, and scared, because being pulled over for the first time by the police is a new experience.

I dealt with every question/comment as it came.  “I don’t know why the pickup didn’t get stopped.”  “Were you speeding?  Then accept the consequences.”  “If you can’t get your regular license for six months, does it matter?  You’ll still have it before you go to college.”  “It’ll be a couple hundred dollars.”  “Why would he frisk you???  It’s a traffic stop for speeding.  If you don’t do anything stupid or threatening, we’ll be on the road in ten minutes.”  “Why would we cancel the night?  Just because one bad thing happened doesn’t mean we throw in the towel.  You have friends expecting you.”

Long story short, he signed his ticket, he pulled out, I had him turn into a dirt road that had a sign for a church on it, the police officer followed us for half a mile (OMG!), we got to the church, we switched drivers, and we carried on with our night.  Dinner at Red Lobster.  Picked up his friend.  Went to the ballet.  Had a great time.

The ticket was $150.00.  We agreed that I would pay half.  Some of you won’t understand that, and think that I’m protecting my baby from the consequences.  I beg to disagree.  I was in the car.  I should’ve said something.  Meanwhile, back at the farm, trust me on this, if I was driving, I would’ve sailed past the police at 66 mph too.  Where do you think Noah learned to drive with speed?  Hehehe.

Where Noah will find himself “in trouble” with me is if a time goes by and I don’t see his $75.  Either through cash, or a plan to work for me for 7.5 hours at $10.00 an hour.  Because responsibility.  Because word of honor.  Because promises.

I was struck by this whole incident, because I have several friends that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, would have screamed/yelled at their kid.  Would have taken a bad situation and made it 100 times worse.  I didn’t.  I tried to help my child through a rough/scary/new experience.  With empathy.  Understanding that these things happen, and that they need to be dealt with.

Things you need to know:

A two or three year old child throwing a temper tantrum isn’t a “bad” child.  This is a child whose every want and need was met for a year or more by loving parents who picked him up, cuddled him, stuck a bottle in his mouth….who is now being told to “grow up” and that he is no longer the center of the universe.  He is having trouble transitioning.  Help him transition.

The seven year old child who wakes up in a pee filled bed, after being toilet trained for five years?  Just as confused and clueless as you as to why they would suddenly wet a bed.  Don’t yell at a child who did something in their sleep.  Reassure them that this is an anomaly, and probably due to being overly tired and not going to the bathroom before bed.  Ensure that they empty their bladder before bed.  If the problem continues, this is not a yelling situation.  This is a “Why have things changed?” situation.  Does this child have a urinary tract infection?  Does this child have nightmares?  Has this child been sexually molested?

The child failing a grade level or a class?  Not a yelling situation.  A how do I help you situation.

Stop yelling.  Stop being mad.  Be the parent you wish your parent was, and if your parent was wonderful, perpetuate that.  Use that brain that you were given, and ask yourself, “what is my child going through, and how can I help them?”

When your child is “bad” they are going through something.  So, empathy.  Weren’t you there not so long ago?  A bad grade, a fight, something lost….didn’t you do the same things as a child/teenager?  How did you wish that your parent reacted?  Do the same.

I am so glad that I was in the car, even though #parenting fail.  I am glad that I was able to walk him through a traffic stop.  The kid has virtually no experience with being in trouble.  I am glad that when he “got in trouble” it was with me.

Being an empathetic parent means putting yourself in your child’s place.  Making a real effort to understand what they are going through.  Being determined to meet their needs and help them to overcome issues.  You brought them into this world.  Your choice.  Now parent.

No, I didn’t start out this way.  When my kids were six and one, I lost my crap more often than I care to admit.  I did yell.  I did spank.  But, I learned.  You can learn too.

We forget.  When we become parents, somehow, we forget all about what it was like to be a kid.  The pressure, the uninvolved parent, the anxiety.  The sigh and disappointed look from a parent.  How do we forget that??

That thirteen year old struggling with popularity?  Remember when it was you?  “Am I good looking enough, smart enough, cool enough?”  What if they aren’t?  Seriously, what if they aren’t?  How is that going to be “fixed”?  That kind of situation can only be fixed by a parents love.  Love, positive talk, helping your child to see and appreciate their strengths, standing tall with what they have…and no one else will do that for your kid but you.

Whether it is an 18 month old who won’t sleep, a three year old throwing a temper tantrum, a seven year old struggling with math, a 12 year old struggling with popularity, a 16 year old struggling with that in-between role of being a responsible adult and still being under the thumb of a parent, or your kid almost 18 getting a speeding ticket… empathetic.  Remember what it was like.  Remember how you wish your parent had reacted.  Be that parent.

So, I’m driving to Meadville, my soon to be 18 year old son riding shot-gun, texting his friends.  Manning up.  Telling his friends he just got a speeding ticket.  And his friends are like, “With your mom???  How jacked is she?  Is she screaming at you?”  And he’s like, “No, she’s cool.  Laughed.  My mom is always on my side.”  And his friends are texting, “Your mom is so cool.  Lucky you.  My dad would have killed me.”  It’s not about being the popular parent.  I would be doing my son no favors by being the doesn’t care, never gets worked up parent.  I have just learned that being the screaming parent gets me nowhere.  Being the empathetic parent gets me everywhere.  It allows me to have heart-to-heart talks with my kid.  We can talk about sex, and breakups, and medical issues, and hopes and dreams. It also allows his friends to know that if they are in trouble, and can’t go to their parents (they think), they can go to Noah’s mom, Ms. Cowles, who doesn’t lose her crap in a crisis.  Who puts herself in their place, and goes, “oh, what if I was seventeen and this happened to me?”

I keep alluding to this in my posts, and today I’m going to spell it out.  Two things.  First – little kid problems are typically little.  Boo-boos, not wanting to go to bed, needing help sorting out a friendship – things that a Band-Aid, juice box and parent cuddles can take care of. Big kid problems tend to be big.  Broken hearts, depression, serious injuries, failures that go on a permanent record.  Elementary school is being called into the principal’s office.  High School is facing expulsion and arrest for the same behavior.  A twelve year old coming to you asking why he or she doesn’t have friends can’t be handled with a cookie.  A sixteen year old who just got dumped by their first love can’t be handled with a pat on the head.

Second – if you want your older child to come to you with issues, you need to be the kind of parent when they are seven that would lead to them to believe that you will always have their back.  You don’t get that by yelling and rolling your eyes every time your child struggles.  You earn that trust by having been there a hundred times in a multitude of different ways. The child who cringes prior to telling you about a bad grade, or a fight at school when 8 years old is not a child who is going to come to you at 16 with a pregnancy scare or suicidal thoughts.

A child who is reeling from chaos and disorder does not need a grown-up to join in the chaos and add to the disorder.  An upset child needs a calming influence, an example of how to calm down and work through the situation.

So, empathetic parenting.  Not being your kids’ best friend, not ignoring problems, but parenting with love, understanding, and a true desire to have a lasting relationship with your offspring.


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