How My Five-Year-Old Taught Me Empathy

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Selina Armstrong

Mom and daughter connecting

By Selina Armstrong

This year as parents we have had to level up our game as we navigate a global pandemic, racial injustices being brought to the forefront, civil unrest and so much more. At any one given moment, it’s hard to know whether I am thriving or just getting by.

My daughter’s kindness came on a day where I was holding on by a thread, making it all the more inspiring. I had just received some tragic news that a friend of mine had lost someone close to her due to suicide. Seeing the dismay on my face, my daughter quickly jumped into action.

As we walked into the house she went into full recovery mode. She told our Google speaker to play “Trust in You,” a gospel song that I listen to often. I don’t know what made her choose that song but she did. Then she told me she was going to give me some time to myself and she would be upstairs in her room if I needed her. 

About 5 minutes later, she came down to check on me and brought some calming tools from her calming corner. We set up her calming corner using Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit about a year ago as a space to encourage conversation and activities around social-emotional intelligence and ways to center ourselves when we're not feeling our best.

My daughter gave me a calm down jar to shake (a sensory jar with glitter and water in it) as well as a piece of paper and a crayon. She instructed me to write down how I was feeling and to let her know when I was done. I wrote, “I am sad.” As she read it, the tears began to well up in my eyes.

My daughter rested my head on her tiny but mighty shoulder as she patted my back. She didn’t try to explain it away or comfort me by telling me everything was going to be ok. She just let me be in the moment as it was, holding space for me. She hugged me for a long, still minute and then asked me if I needed anything else. 

I was overwhelmed by the experience and felt so many emotions crashing into one another, wave after wave. I was grieving and sad… and proud ... all at the very same time. Sad about our loss and also a proud, proud mama knowing that the things I have been sharing with her about our bodies, minds and emotions were not in vain. 

While sitting there, I noticed a bit of joy beginning to fill my heart in witnessing the tender emotions and care my daughter had shown to me in my moment of need. I was truly taken back by her sincerity and affection; qualities my 5-year-old, in her still appropriately “self-centered” stage of development, did not often display. I was glad to know she had empathy and compassion within her to be shared, not only with me and others, but for and with herself.

As I was reflecting on the moment, I ran across a quote by Robert Heinlein that truly put it into perspective, “When one teaches, two learn.” The quote reminds me of the two-way street affirmed by attachment parenting theory. Attachment theory focuses on the strong emotional bond between child and caregiver and the feeling of security and safety experienced through this connectedness. 

I felt safe in that moment with my daughter which allowed me to share a more vulnerable side of myself with her instead of pushing my feelings down and away. The theory of attachment parenting explains that we as parents are not only feeding and nourishing our children, but our children are doing the same for us. 

My child was feeding my soul and that feeling and memory is something I try to pull from in those tough parenting times when I am not feeling centered. I learned that I can be vulnerable and, in that vulnerability, I can let someone in to share in that pain with me.

To have someone truly be present with you in the midst of sorrow doesn’t make the pain go away but it does help ease the pain. That magical moment of connection my daughter and I shared was priceless. What a great lesson in reciprocity to learn from a 5-year-old!

_____________

Selina Armstrong is a trauma informed practitioner that has over 20 years experience working with children and families in the areas of education, international development and advocacy.

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