I frequent parks. Mostly with children in tow. I will see a child of whatever age get a head bump, or a scraped knee, and while they are wailing, their caregivers frequently comfort them by assuring them that they are OK. I have done so myself - just recently in fact, when my fairly grown-up daughter was upset about college pressures. “It will be OK. Don’t worry” I intoned as I rubbed her back. I have come to see that act of reassurance is as much for myself as it is for my child.
It is emotionally activating to hear a child, especially my own, cry. If I attend to my own inner state in those moments where my child is distressed, I often find turmoil. Assuring my child that THEY are OK soothes my own fears and worries.
it is often hard to soothe a child when I am, myself, disturbed. The tricky part is I don’t always notice my own disturbance in the moment, which can come in many forms -pained, scared, annoyed, distracted, impatient, guilty, angry. I recall having a flashes of anger when my daughter would hurt herself physically. That anger was a protective covering for a deeper fear that considered every downturn in her young life as my fault…I should have been watching…if only I was a better mother…
This inner turmoil is a sub-current that often gets overlooked when my attention is commandeered by a distressed kid. However when I catch myself in the need to fix things for my child so they can (quickly!) be ok again, and I SEE myself doing that, I have a chance to turn to myself ( the old airplane adage of put your face mask on first!), and calm my own reactions first.
In fact my daughter was the one that put me on the path of self inquiry in this regard. “Just let me have my feelings” she would shout, when I would rush in to “fix” her troubles. Wow, what good advice. Especially when I recognized who I was really “fixing” with my solace and solutions. This is not to say I don’t comfort children. I do. I just try not to talk them out of their pain anymore. If they are crying I assume they are hurt/scared on some level and my current attitude is to align myself with their feelings rather than try to change them. It’s amazing how effectively that actually does cheer a child up.
I recall an incident with a two year old boy, who, unusually for him, was bitterly sad when his mother left him in my care. Rather than employing distraction - an effective tool in other circumstances, I aligned myself with his feelings, letting him know that I saw how sad he was and how much he missed his Mama. I’m sure I did offer some reassurance that mom’s always come back, but that wasn’t the main thrust of my communications. The important part was that I reflected his feelings back to him, with accurate empathy for his situation. It did indeed take a while for him to settle, but eventually he did. Later on, when we had moved onto play he looked up with a reflective air saying “I was so sad”. “Yes, you were”, I agreed. “And I see that you are not sad now. What helped you with your sadness?” I didn’t really expect a reply. He was only two after all. But he looked straight into my eyes and said “You."
There are moment of emergency of course where immediate action trumps the luxury of self inquiry and thoughtful response. But for the most part, for everyday hurts, I suggest trying this approach with the next tumble of your toddler or emotional anguish of your teen. Check your own emotions first and then be a mirror rather than an instruction manual. Trust that they have the resources within to help themselves and offer some accurate empathy rather than advice. I find that it is the most authentic response I can give, and the kids I know and care for seem to truly thrive with it.