Finding empathy for our children can be hard to find when they are becoming emotional over something simple, like their sandwiches being cut in the wrong shape. As a result, we can end up using the logical part of our brain to coax (not coach) our children through these moments. More often than not this isn't effective as we aren't meeting them where they are at.
The alternative is finding the intentions and emotions, then naming these. This is effective on many levels but ultimately it empowers children as they experience being both ‘seen’ and ‘heard’.
A quick story, one of many that I could share. In the past, I have run a breakfast program with pre-schooler aged children. On one occasion, I was at the table with David (not his real name) and he had just finished a glass of milk. He was ready to wash up his cup - this was part of the expectation of having breakfast - but as he moved around the table another boy, Gavin (also not his real name) got up and got to the washing bucket just before David. This led to a meltdown for David. He dropped his cup, started crying and hid under the table. My response was to calmly sit next to the table, which David allowed. I chose at this moment to retell the story about what had just happened with the milk, but use his intentions and emotions. Something along these lines:
“You were ready to wash your cup and as you walked around the table Gavin got up and got to the washing bucket before you... (space to process) You thought you were going to be next... (more space to process) You were ready to wash your cup and when Gavin got there, it made you upset... (even more space to process). You really wanted to be next to wash up”.
With a few nods and noises that symbolised agreements he calmed down. I asked if he wanted me to stay sitting next to him a little longer, he said yes. I stayed for another minute before leaving and saying, “I am going to go back to the breakfast table now. When you are ready, you can come back to the breakfast area to clean up.” Surely enough 30 seconds later he came out from under the table to clean up his cup. No reasoning or additional dialogue needed. No coaxing him out of his emotions or into what I wanted him to do. It was just about providing the time and space to allow him to be seen and heard.
In these moments, I believe that children do the most powerful learning of all. They learn that they are forgivable and that it’s okay to make mistakes. They develop a greater awareness of themselves by our reflections back to them. These are core skills that will support them to navigate life.