One night I was saying goodnight to DD (13 at the time) when she started telling me about all the reasons why she feels she really wanted a certain phone. She was making some really good points, but I didn’t reflect that, my rising stress about the sleep she needed led me to cut to the chase and say to her “honey tomorrow’s a really big day (a trip away) and this is a really big conversation which I don’t have the capacity to have at the moment because I really want you to get a good night’s sleep”. She said “ok mum I get that, but can you please acknowledge that you’ve heard and understand all the points I’ve made and reassure me that we can have this conversation at some point this weekend?”
It’s not enough to listen, we need to show that we’ve understood. And yes of course, as much as she needed her sleep, she also needed and deserved to feel heard and acknowledged after all these very heartfelt points she’d just shared with me! She was satisfied to hear my summary of what I’d heard and understood. Without giving that to a kid, how are they to know that we truly were listening and taking them seriously. Conversations like this are not just about making decisions, we need to truly engage and show our care.
Our empathy helps them develop patience. She really wanted to have the conversation and had to hold the tension of having to delay the gratification until another time. What likely helped her deal with that frustration (and not misdirect it by becoming sassy, aggressive, defensive or passive aggressive) was identifying and expressing these other needs; to have all that she’d shared properly acknowledged, and the reassurance that the conversation would happen some time soon. She knows she has these needs (to be heard, acknowledged and given reassurance) and has the right to seek for them to be met because this is what’s valued in our family.
How easily things can go south. Sometimes I think about a simple little interaction such as this in our family, and reflect on how important it is that children can tune in to their frustration and identify what it is they need. I often think about how much more difficult/ upsetting/ conflictual/ chaotic a similar interaction could be if the emotional needs were not recognised or met.
A child’s emotional intelligence (ability to know and skillfully manage their feelings) develops slowly over time. When they’re little, their expressions of their wants, needs and frustrations are often messy and cause parents a lot of frustration. Yet it’s the parent’s caring response that slowly helps a child learn to identify and better manage their feelings, helps them start to make sense of these uncomfortable strong urges that can cause them to do and say things that others don’t like.
The hard yards of parenting. The child’s emotional intelligence slowly develops every time a parent listens to their young child’s more messy expression of their frustration, (“No!!! I want it now!!!”, “it’s not fair”, “you don’t care”, “you’re ruining my day!”, “I’m never going to share with you!!”)
– and the parent can manage their own urge to also react like a young child with little impulse control
– yet instead take a deep breath to ease out their own frustrations, maybe stop and think to themselves “I can deal with this”
– then respond by tuning in to and naming some of the frustrations that their demands, or complaints, or criticisms, or threats, or wails, or whines may be giving insight into “I hear how hard this is for you”, “you really really want it now don’t you”, “it’s hard to wait isn’t it”, “oh sweetheart, what big frustration, I care”
– and once that connection/ empathy starts to lessen the child’s distress, they may be ready to problem solve or ready to accept the limit and again feel settled enough to move on
– then the young child can themselves get better and better at identifying and naming what they really need in a more mature, less messy, way.
Maturity doesn’t just come with age. Many teenagers, or even adults can feel deeply wounded and defensive at the slightest hint of a “no” or a rejection (based on a history of not feeling heard and acknowledged) and perhaps quickly retort “ok whatever!!! Don’t touch me I don’t want a hug!!!” or worse.
Back to my daughter, if similar needs (to feel heard, acknowledged, reassured, empathised with) hadn’t been identified and met repeatedly throughout her childhood, she likely wouldn’t recognise when she has these needs, or when these needs have not been met, or wouldn’t feel confident to voice them if she did. It’s so reassuring for me as a parent to know that my kids are helping me to meet their needs by giving me prompts such as these.
Helping your kid develop consideration for you and others. And for a kid to recognise and aim to meet these same needs in others, like their parents or friends or siblings, they need to be on the receiving end of having these needs met repeatedly. They don’t learn it through theory “you should care about how that affected me” – they need to really really get the feeling for it at a whole body and mind level, through repeated experience on the receiving end.
Simple but very important human needs, which create a lot of satisfaction when met. Yet a lot of frustration when not met.