It happened again…I was working with someone who asked the proverbial million dollar question. “Can I be a really empathic parent if I don’t know what that looks like?” Most of those who ask this question were not children of poverty, violence, or abuse. They are just people like you and me who want to show deep engagement in the struggles that their children have and they notice that this is hard. Like really hard. Like they are so uncomfortable with it that they want those little sweeties to just go away for a while and come back when their feelings aren’t so, well, overwhelming.
This is the natural response that one feels when he or she had parents who (tried their hardest and did their best but) were not able to tolerate their ‘big’ emotions. So as children they report that they did indeed end of ‘going away’ and managing those emotions on their own in some creative way. But in the process, they come to have low tolerance for the normal ebbs and flows of their own emotional experience because a loving ‘other’ could not help them learn how. As Diana Fosha says, “That which becomes off-limits in the communication with the caregiver eventually becomes off-limits for the person to experience and consider–even in the privacy of his inner life.” So we struggle to feel and name our own complex emotions and therefore have little or no skill set to give this gift of staying near our children when they feel these kinds of things. And this cycle is perpetuated reflexively into the next generation.
So is there hope that we can do better? Can we give the gift that we don’t feel that we have ourselves? Dr. Dan Siegel says an emphatic “YES”. The below book is a must read if you resonate at all with what I have been rambling on about. I’ll let Siegel give you the bottom line: “When it comes to how our children will be attached to us, having difficult experiences early in life is less important than whether we’ve found a way to make sense of how those experiences have affected us. Making sense is a source of strength and resilience.” Read the book.