I don’t know when I first heard about empathizing with an upset toddler, but it was way before I had one of my own and was paid to parent how families wanted me to. I was reintroduced to the concept a few years ago through Janet Lansbury’s blog. Sportscasting made a lot of sense to me and worked, though I didn’t have many opportunities to use it when multiple children were having an issue. I also read many articles about making sure your upset child felt heard and acknowledged. From the examples, it seemed like it nearly immediately eased the situation and helped the child move forward, but my experiences never added up to that.
A couple days ago, it clicked. I am currently reading No Bad Kids, The Case for Make Believe, and the occasional Teacher Tom post. I have also been trying to make the time to listen to some of Janet Lansbury’s podcasts while I cook or clean. I realized that I have been phrasing things completely wrong. Wallace hasn’t been feeling heard and the situations always escalate.
When Wallace gets upset, I often say something such as “I hear that you want a candy, but we aren’t having candy right now.” This never worked but I couldn’t figure out why! I thought I was saying what he needed to hear, but my emphasis was all wrong and I was taking it personally in the process. I thought he wanted to know that *I* heard him. Strike that and reverse it. *He* wanted to be heard. Doh!
A few days ago, I started my acknowledging sentences with “you” and the impact was immediate. He felt heard! He still didn’t like what I had to say, but he knew I heard him. It keeps working and in combination with the visual schedule I made, it eases so much of the tension we often feel during times he is tired, hungry, or not wanting to transiton.
For example, we needed to get ready to leave the house but he was feeling tired and was not cooperating. He ran over to me, threw himself on the floor, and declared he was too tired to put his socks on. (Um, dude, you just ran across the room.) I said something like “you are tired and don’t want to put your socks on. We need to get ready to go.” He managed to get over to the socks and I tried again to show him on his visual schedule what we needed to do to get out the door. He threw himself around some more and instead of getting frustrated, I said “you seem tired, do you need a hug?” He climbed onto my lap for a hug and he assisted with his socks. We managed the boots, sweater, and poncho, and he happily, albeit tiredly, got out the door. Feeling like I have tools to get us through tough situations has helped me to stay calm.
As an aside, Wallace’s hypotonia makes these fine motor tasks challenging. Putting on his socks is a crucial life skill that we have been working for months and that he can usually do with minimal assistance. I lay them out for him with the heel down and sometimes have to help adjust the toes. I know he can do this and feel it’s a reasonable expectation for him to try to put his socks on every time. He also has successfully put on his orthotics and shoes with very minimal assistance, though he is resistant to working on that skill.
I’m really hopeful these tools and changes in how I respond will improve our daily interactions and our overall relationship. I want him to feel heard, which I don’t have with my parents.