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When you don’t know what to say or do, choose empathy

I was at the park yesterday, at the end of a long day.  My kids both dashed off immediately to play, and I sat at the edge of the playground just checking my phone and zoning out a little.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little boy head across the park with a plastic truck in his hand, then his mom came up after him, removed the truck and hauled the kid around the corner and out of sight behind a hedge.  The unmistakable sounds of a three year old’s tantrum rose up from behind the hedge where he was with his mom.  A little thought bubbled up, wondering, “what did the kid do?”  As far as I could tell, he didn’t do anything wrong, but I hadn’t been watching him very closely.

I sat there a moment before another mom came up to me and said, “What’s going on there?  Seems a bit extreme to me.”  The child’s screams continued and parents were starting to look at each other, wondering what was going on.  “I don’t know,” I answered.

After a few more moments, mom and kid returned to the playground.  They sat down on a bench, and the hiccuping child didn’t want his mom to go anywhere other than right beside him on the bench. He didn’t want her to stand up, look in her bag, check the stroller, nothing.  At this point, the woman who spoke to me earlier piped up, “Anyone looking for a little boy in a red shirt?”  And the mom went running across the field to retrieve her other child, who had wandered off during his brother’s tantrum.  The hiccuping boy screamed and ran after her a bit, then threw himself on the ground in the middle of the park and started shrieking loudly and drumming his fists and legs on the ground.  His face was bright red and tears were streaming down it.

Mom came back, bringing her stray red-shirted boy with her.  The screaming boy continued, and now other children started to gather around, concerned.  Claire came over to me, looking worried.  When the mom walked right past the screaming boy to do something for the perfectly calm red-shirted son, my red flag went up.  Another mom wondered aloud, “who is that boy’s parent?”

I looked around the park and saw that everyone was uncomfortably aware of the situation and yet nobody wanted to get involved.  Even the kid’s mom didn’t want to get involved.  This boy was screaming and screaming and everyone was ignoring him.  So I stood up and walked over to the tantruming boy, crouched down and said, “You’re really angry, huh?”  He paused for a tiny moment, then cried even harder than ever.  His mom came and stood over him, still pretty distant.  I looked up at her.  “He’s really upset, hey?  It’s so hard.”  She nodded, tight lipped.  Then she picked him up and gathered her things and put her boys in the car and drove away.

Did I do the right thing in this situation?  Would it have been better to have said nothing, let the other mom make her own parenting choices and leave the boy to cry alone?  

Empathy is always appropriate.  Everyone wants to be heard, listened to, have their voice valued.  I wish I could have done something more, but even doing something small felt better than doing nothing at all.  It definitely wasn’t the right time to launch into a rant about how great gentle discipline is, or how ignoring and time outs can harm attachment.

Sometimes situations like this are uncomfortable and upsetting for us as parents because they remind us of our own shortcomings, of that time our child melted down in a public place and we didn’t handle it very well.  Empathy recognizes that hey, sometimes a mom has to leave a child tantruming on the ground in order to rescue the other one who’s wandered off towards the road.  Empathy says, hey, you wanted your mom to stay close to you and she went running off to get your brother.  That’s not what you wanted, was it?

If I were in this situation again, I might ask the mom if she needs any help. I might ask if it’s ok to offer the upset boy a snack or find out if she wants me to keep an eye on her other son while she helps her older boy calm down.  I could have offered more empathetic words instead of the handful I actually said out loud.  I’ll keep all that in mind for next time.  I love reading the Feeleez blog, because Natalie gives lots of great examples of using empathy to smooth out conflict, and sometimes we need to hear or read someone else’s words first before we can find our own.

Empathy.  It’s like the word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – it’s something good to say when you don’t know what to say.  And sometimes it works a little bit of magic.  In this case, I really hope it helped, even a little bit.

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